Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
Examined Life
Further Materials
Slush Pile
Reading Room

Dispatches from the present


A Fool’s Game


A week after the fall of Boris Johnson, the British press has moved on. Now all the talk is of the rapid-fire leadership contest in which ten Tory hopefuls will stab one another in the front, side and back for a couple of weeks before the two survivors are presented to the party membership with the apparent aim of selecting whoever is madder. This rat race is absolutely transfixing, it must be admitted: the sweet schadenfreude of seeing the candidates’ past and present venality fully exposed is given a peculiarly masochistic edge by the knowledge that one of these bastards is actually going to be prime minister. But I wish I could press pause because I haven’t yet moved on from Boris: having feasted on a glut of political obituaries, I still find myself awake at night with indigestion.

There was nothing fun about the political death of Theresa May. You went from hating to pitying her the moment you saw her outside Downing Street for the ritual resignation speech. “Who would do such a job?” you asked yourself in the face of her evident pain. David Cameron’s demise wasn’t fun either, if only because we were all in shock that his response to losing the Brexit vote—which he seemed to have organized on a whim—was to leave everyone else to hold the baby while he repaired to the Cotswolds to play tennis with his mates and write a memoir in his luxury shed. With Boris, by contrast, it was as if we’d come to a collective agreement to put him in the stocks and throw tomatoes at him. Some of my favorite lines from unnamed insiders: “Boris Johnson is the third prime minister to be brought down by Boris Johnson”; “Boris couldn’t run a piss-up in a brewery, but he did run a piss-up in Downing Street”; “The Tory party has finally developed herd immunity to Boris Johnson”; “The problem with Boris is his personal pronouns, which are me, me and me.” You live as a clown, you die as a clown.

Clown isn’t quite fair, in truth—Boris isn’t above clowning, but fundamentally his humor relies on rapid wit and a sense of life’s absurdity. I confess that I always found him funny, even to the last: “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” he is supposed to have said of the Tory politician whose penchant for groping young men initiated his downfall. The fact that he couldn’t resist a joke was a redeeming feature in my eyes, and in those of many Brits, but at the same time it left his presence in politics fairly mysterious. For the most transformational British politician since Margaret Thatcher, the man who has forced our exit from the European Union and put a border in the Irish Sea, redrawing the electoral map and shattering constitutional conventions in the process, seems to have no real ideology to speak of. When he spoke wistfully of all he had wanted to achieve in office, I had no idea what he was referring to and it wasn’t clear to me that he did either. He just wanted power. But how does that relate to his primary vocation, which is clearly comedy? We know that the joke is on us somehow, but we still don’t quite get it.

Perhaps this is why his obituaries have tended to take the form of extended profiles covering his whole life, rather than just his life in politics. Because although you suspect that Boris will remain unknowable even to himself, there are some clues that make you think you’re getting closer. For one thing, he’s not actually called Boris. His real name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and his family still call him “Al.” Apparently he decided to use his middle name on arrival at Eton aged thirteen: a fresh start after a perturbed childhood, his father largely absent and his mother clinically depressed, himself suffering from deafness due to glue ear until the age of eight, the family moving house 32 times in the space of fourteen years, most famously to Brussels, where his father worked as a Eurocrat. “Boris” was his name for the eccentric persona he had gradually developed in response to being belittled as a foreigner when he was sent to an English boarding school at eleven after his mother’s hospitalization. Now he was foreign in the way of British aristocrats, floating above the boring mores and torpid conformity of the bourgeois order, aspiring to live by the motto his father took from the Conservative statesman Lord Balfour: “Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.”

Boris’s fall represents the rejection of that nihilistic dictum. Not by him, of course, but by those of his colleagues who found themselves unable, however temporarily, to live with the constant lying that he demanded of them. There is a certain wisdom in Balfour’s words: they point to the vanity of human aspirations and achievements in the face of our finitude. In Boris’s mind, though, that thought seems to entail a kind of pleonectic hedonism: nothing really matters, so you might as well get as much pleasure and power as you can. Lying is just part of the game of life, and if you can’t see that it is a game then more fool you. What eventually did for Boris was that most people can’t live like that. The will to truth is simply too powerful. Politicians are famously economical with the truth, but even they typically need to believe some of what they say. And since it’s far easier to believe your own bullshit than someone else’s, leaders can only lie so much to their underlings.

The status of truth in politics has of course been much discussed since 2016. By this point many of Boris’s lies have become accepted as bedrock in political discussion: that a hard Brexit was the will of the people; that Jeremy Corbyn represented a mortal danger to the nation; that the UK’s COVID response was exemplary. The odd thing is that Boris’s falsehoods seemed to be told with a wink. Only a fool would take me literally, they seemed to say; deception is part of the game. But at the same time they could be true, couldn’t they, so why not half-believe them as well? Truthfulness in the sense of both accuracy and sincerity is the obsession of uptight liberal bourgeois nobodies with their insanely self-satisfied fact-checks. Boris’s comic persona, somehow embodied in his curious hair, allowed him to appear above all of that, a kind of disheveled Übermensch.

Progressives shudder in horror at the protofascist charisma of the unbridled power-seeker who believes in nothing but his own advancement, but I wonder if that lets us off the hook. What do we ourselves make of the nihilistic dictum? Where does truth sit relative to power in our own scheme of values? Boris took the view that nothing matters very much, so we might as well just redistribute power to ourselves. Progressives clearly believe some things matters enormously—but which, and why? Sometimes it seems the goal is simply to redistribute power from the strong to the weak. But that is compatible with a disregard for truth and honesty, as anyone in contemporary activist or university spaces will know, and it is also compatible with the view that there are no higher values. Once power has been redistributed to its preferred target, with all the right people occupying the right jobs, what then? Do we have a vision of what our institutions are actually for, let alone of what is truly valuable in life? If we’re not willing to argue over what constitutes the good and the beautiful, if we dismiss all that as so much aristocratic frippery, then we allow politics to be played on the nihilist’s turf, where the one who makes the game fun is liable to win.