Home » The Boris Johnson show must go on, but for how long?
Comment Matthew Paul

The Boris Johnson show must go on, but for how long?

It might not be right to say that Boris Johnson cares about nothing else in the world than Boris Johnson.

For example, since the red-wine-on-white-sofa screaming match in June 2019, Boris has been pretty assiduous about keeping the third Mrs Johnson happy, giving her whatever she wants by way of startlingly un-Conservative reforms to animal welfare laws. 

Boris also claims to care about new ‘red wall’ recruits to the Tory cause. Throughout this week’s conference in Manchester, he posed as the champion of the working man, lambasting greedy bosses for their over-reliance on imported labour and turning the party of business into the party of “f**k business”.

It’s less obvious that Boris cares much about the Conservative and Unionist Party, even if the rapturous response to his keynote conference speech on Wednesday demonstrates that the Tory rank and file retain a good deal of enthusiasm for Boris.

The Prime Minister always makes it hard for observers to fathom what is going on behind the greasepaint, and his costume of ruffled hair and shabby suits. And when rattling off his 44-minute stand-up routine to a delighted crowd, he was as Sphynx-like as ever. Is this someone whose driving purpose in life is to level Britain up, and create a high-wage, high-productivity economy? Is his party serious in its pivot from globalism? 

Or is he, as his opponents tend to suggest, just a rotten old fraud?

“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man,” the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said at his own party conference last week. “I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show. I think he’s a trickster who has performed his one trick.”

Kier Starmer’s attacks on Boris as a trivial man might have been what the Labour Party wanted to hear, but his view of Boris is one that voters on the whole –and large numbers of Northern ex-Labour voters in particular– don’t seem to share. 

Starmer puffed that he spent the summer of 2010 putting terrorists behind bars, while Boris “was writing an article in The Telegraph declaring a war on traffic cones.”

He might rather have said: “while I was being pompous in court, Boris was busy running Western Europe’s biggest and wealthiest city; having stolen it from right under the Labour Party’s nose”. That Boris found time on top of this to earn quarter of a million quid writing amusing and erudite newspaper columns –an accomplishment way outside Starmer’s skill set– doesn’t reflect negatively on Boris.

If attacks on the Prime Minister as purely trivial don’t hit home, would Starmer have been right if he had instead described Boris as a bad man?

Some of Johnson’s critics think so. His erstwhile leadership rival, the brutally defenestrated Rory Stewart, described Boris in an article last November as the most accomplished liar ever to hold the office of Prime Minister: “He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true.”

Several of these lies were put out for public display on Wednesday. Boris ignored colossal government investment in the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, and credited its success entirely to the private sector. He boasted of having “seen off” the European Super League; an enterprise he supported until its Chernobyl-tier unpopularity among fans became apparent. 

He vaunted having signed 68 new free trade deals (all but two of these are roll-overs of the trading arrangements the UK enjoyed as a member of the EU). He described Britain as the “number one” destination for foreign investment. Last month’s UN Investment Report in fact has the UK at number 16; down five places from its previous ranking.

Boris’s biggest shtick, and central to his theme of levelling up, was to credit government policy with having produced wage rises. But apart from areas in which government policy has, deliberately or otherwise, created labour shortages, wages are rising far more slowly than the cost of living –again as a direct result of government policy– is increasing. 

In the care sector, where wages are either set by public sector employers or constrained by what public sector clients like local authorities will pay, the Government is doing whatever it can to drive down wage costs, and issuing a hundred thousand visas to care workers rather than paying British workers more to fill vacancies. There are now more migrants than ever before working in the NHS and care homes. This, too, makes it look as though the Prime Minister isn’t being entirely straight about wanting a high-wage economy.

Do these lies matter to anyone? A poll by Opinium for Sky News seemed to show voters –while responding broadly positively to Boris’s speech– preferred Starmer’s. Respondents agreed with what Starmer said more than with what Boris said, and preferred Boris’s oration only on one metric: that it was more ‘interesting’. And it was. While not quite as funny as some of Boris’s best speeches, it bubbled along nicely, and the audience loved it. 

That said, the Conservative Party’s enthusiasm for its boosterish leader is not universal, or unconditional. Tory MPs admire in Boris what Napoleon required of his generals: luck. So far, and even with the pandemic, he has been devilishly lucky. Covid is still a box-fresh excuse for labour shortages, queues at petrol stations, soaring gas prices and empty shelves. The effects of Brexit have been masked or –as with the king’s ransoms being paid to delighted HGV drivers– trumpeted as a success.

The audience roared. But on the faces of some of Boris’s ministers, you could see a degree of wonderment as to how Boris’s luck hasn’t run out already, and anxiety that they should be in the right place when it does.