I remember when Boris Johnson came into power, when he was humiliated repeatedly by defeats in parliament – and so many of my friends were convinced that he would provide a short route to a Corbyn government – that I ended up writing a piece for my blog arguing that Johnson had all sorts of hidden strengths and should not be underestimated.
Right now, the danger on the left is the opposite. That people are so convinced he will be in power for decades and decades that they feel quite powerless.For a very long time, British politics has swung between periods of unresolved conflict and ones characterised by a stable single-party hegemony. We’re in one of those latter moments, and when they start they tend to go on a long time (11 years of Thatcher, 10 years of Blair…). They begin with a great wave of popular enthusiasm and for a long time the leader appears unassailable.
Or if you want a non-British comparison, try reading journalists accounts of visits to Italy in 1921. So intense was the enthusiasm for Mussolini that journalists describe visiting town squares and listening as crowded them, night after night, just ordinary unpolitical people – playing the fascist anthems till their arms were so tired they couldn’t go on any more.That hegemony didn’t end well for Mussolini. Twenty years later the same town squares were full of people singing the songs of the partisans.
There’s a reason why Mussolini is a useful comparison, not because he was a fascist (Johnson isn’t) but because both he and Johnson have established their popular appeal as instances of the clown. I do think the sharpest piece of political and cultural analysis of the Johnson’s appeal was Docx’s piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago.
Docx made the point that clowns can be incredibly effective politicians because they seem to stand outside the normal realm of politics in which a leader who lies, or who steals, is punished for their transgression. (Trump, too, was one of them and seemed for a short period to have similarly evaded the rules of political gravity).
While I think that identification is apt; the piece didn’t supply an answer to the obvvious follow-up question: if playing the clown can be such an effective way of winning at politics, why isn’t Eddie Izzard – or Mark Thomas, or Mark Steel – leader of the Labour Party now? There must be something high-risk about this strategy which encourages most parties to avoid it most of the time. The answer of course is that while the “good clown” is a figure of public approval, the “bad clown” is something else.
People who write stories for children will tell you that the most effective form of villain is not a bad character, but an unstable one. The surrogate mother who promises love they can’t deliver, the parent who is too busy with their career to show love, the father who is funny and generous in public but a violent drunk when the guests leave. And who could be more unstable than a leader who is a clown?
It is pretty clear what the vices of a Johnson government have been – a carelessness about deaths during the pandemic, an open door towards any freeloader tied to Johnson by contacts or ideology and determined to steal what they can. We have in front of us the prospect of many years of thieves’ government. And it will be worse than it has been – any instincts of poltiical self-restraint which Johnson once had will be loosened in a context where the people seem to applaud his acts of larceny, and the other parties are bereft of a compelling alternative vision.
I don’t know what form the opposition to Johnson will take, still less what politics will come after him. All I know is that at some moment even he, too, will pass. And that the theorists who are about to fill the pages of the Guardian, predicting a century of Conservative government will at some stage in the future look as foolish as the people who responded to Labour victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 by insisting that the Tories would never govern again.