Last week on Talkradio, host Ross Kempsell asked Boris Johnson “what do you do to relax? What do you do to switch off?” Boris answered with the kind of off-kilter stop and start monologue usually reserved for character actors in David Lynch films.
“I make models of buses. So what I do, no, I don’t make models of buses, what I do is I get old — I don’t know — wooden wine crates… right? And then I paint. And I turn it into a bus. And so I put passengers — you want to know this? … No, I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus.”
By the end of the minute-long ramble, you half expect him to hold a mask to his face and huff menacingly from an oxygen tank. But there is something murkily accurate in this vision of Boris lurched over a decrepit wine box painting little smiley faces of would-be voters and Brexiteers on a comfortingly “wonderful” bus.
A bus on which everyone’s having a perfectly pleasant journey. A bus where no nasty neighbours record your domestic spats. A bus where you are prime minister of a united Great Britain. A bus where you can plaster any slogan on the side, and that slogan is good and true.
It is easy to picture Boris in a bus conductor’s uniform, sitting in his little painted wine box, yelling “all aboard! Next stop, Number 10!” to everyone and no one.
Boris is The Prince That Was Promised. At least that’s what you’d think if you have your unfortunate ear to the rail of the British media’s narratives of prophecy and inheritance.
If there’s one word peppered like corn through the gut-churning excrement of Boris’ ceaseless media coverage, it is “charm”. Every profile of the shock blonde born to rue (not a typo) touches on his mystical charisma — his patrician spasticity capturing the fawning shock and awww fart huffery of the media class again and again, over and over, curiouser curiouser.
As with Trump, the media finds itself playing a game of roulette with Boris. He thrives on negative attention. It is fuel to the fire for his guffawing approach to serious debate — and most negative attention he receives is absorbed and reshaped as part of his brand. He is a cosmic horror Tetsuo-like blob of the modern discourse.
The difficulty is that Boris himself is media. His career as a hackneyed, mendacious, purple-prose loving columnist (pot, kettle) is intertwined with the jagged arc of his political career. He still, surreally, writes a weekly column in the highly influential Telegraph for £275,000 a year. A shock and awe journo who turns ripples into waves by ingratiating himself into “serious” media culture, Boris has been able to both steer and sink the ships of debate.
It helps that the Murdoch machine keeps a firm hand steadily steering his till and throwing out the odd life preserver, when necessary.
Just as Trump did with the TV debates, Johnson has used “mainstream” critics’ incredulity to his advantage. This incredulity turns to cynicism, then fatigue, and “you couldn’t possibly” jaggedly slides into “oh god, he will, won’t he?”
Sonia Purnell, who wrote the essential critical biography Just Boris recently said of prime minister Boris: “I think it’s almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will be quite hard now for anyone else to topple him, because he’s got the media writing that story.”
Boris, like Captain Hook, is an Eton man, and like the villainous pirate he is hyper aware of the tick-tocking of the clock. His time is now if he wants to avoid being marooned in Neverland again.
Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins recently published an article titled “Boris Johnson may be an incompetent liar, but charm is his secret weapon”. He warns that “weaponised charm may yet be the new tool of tyranny”. And he explains that “people like laughing at politics, and Johnson appears a fellow human. He is preferable to the spouters of robotic clichés, such as Theresa May”.
There are a million versions of this article. Boris has fuelled his career with the media’s self-flagellating narrative of “inevitability”. He cloaked himself in their hand-wringing, and played the game with a “that’s not flying, it’s falling (or ziplining) with style!” approach. He did this as a journalist in the ’90s, an MP in the 2000s, and mayor in the 2010s. Johnson the brand, Johnson the celebrity, Johnson the cult anti-hero: their othering and their attention rolled him in glitter until he sparkled gold.
The sensible snobs who craft the discourse detest Boris’ boorish snobbishness, and fall back on their fainting couches, lamenting: “ah! but he is what the rabble want!” I suppose it’s tragically hard to argue that Johnson isn’t charming or inevitable when you look over to see him running against Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt — two ventriloquist dummies who somehow escaped the same cursed gunny sack at the bottom of Lake Focus Group.
To a wild colonial boy with a dim view of the fatherland (Dad’s a Sunderland lad, sadly) Boris is charming in the way that watching Jeremy Clarkson smash a Jaguar into a cement pylon would be charming. He is a big beautiful toad hopping on Great Britannia’s sinking lily pad.
The rise of Boris is beatifically karmic, from certain vantage points. And so the British voter is painted as a happy passenger on the side of Boris’ fictive wine box bus.