Boris Johnson was at the ExCeL in Docklands this week for the final hustings of the Tory leadership contest with Jeremy Hunt. I knew I was going the right way when I saw a man dressed in sand-coloured linen at Greenwich North station, and a woman with a silken head scarf knotted under her chin: a refugee from a Jilly Cooper novel adrift in Docklands. The surroundings were unfortunate, but Boris is a writer. He can conjure a dream. He conjured himself.
Johnson was introduced by Liz Truss in blood red, as hard as he is soft, promising enforcement of the dream. Then he wove narratives in the air. His narratives, which I think he cannot help, are shameful and multiple. Sometimes they are not even ambitious.
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“The fantastic ExCeL building!” he shouted, waving at the interior of this massive shed, as if it were the Royal Albert Hall at the Last Night of the Proms. He can gild ExCel, is his message. He can gild anything, even darkness: it is always darkest, he reminded us, before the dawn. He meant: Brexit is the dawn.
He looked clean this time at least, and unfrightened. He used to look quite frightened when power approached – and he has the tidiest hair of his life. Boris’s hair is his spirit animal; it tells you the state of his mind. Iain Dale, the grumpy MC, who moaned at the stewards struggling to get microphones to Tory members’ mouths, asked him if he dyes his hair. That is all the lobby is talking about, Dale said, which gives you an idea of the state of the lobby, who are required, these days, to analyse the subconscious yearnings of voters; to rationalise what is insane. Boris refused to answer. For him, personal questions are a short road to hell.
He waved a kipper around instead and said that the EU demanded it be posted to customers with an expensive “plastic ice pillow” which will harm British profits. Brexiteers love to invoke fish. It reminds people that we are an island. The next day the EU said this was not their regulation; they have nothing to say on smoked fish, only fresh fish. But that is Boris’s way: build straw men, and then dismantle them, or not.
He talked about the non-existent threat to Mars Bars – Remainers say there will be no Mars Bars, or water, after Brexit. Then he asked: do you think this great country is incapable of making Christmas dinner? It is not really a joke, even if people laughed. It is an insinuation: does it follow that Jeremy Hunt thinks this great country is not capable of making Christmas dinner, and is therefore not a great country at all?
When asked about the Brexit Party’s threat to the Tory Party, he admitted he once met Nigel Farage in a pub for a “cold war summit”. (Always look backwards in time. His constituency does). Why? “I was then a journalist,” he said, with mirth in his eyes. He is still a journalist, and this is his greatest column yet.
He used the old tools though. He gave the stripping look – I would love you if I could – to a woman who asked about debt management. Does he save money? “I’ve certainly spent a lot,” he said. He might have said: “I’ve earned a lot”. It is more Tory. “I’ve spent a lot” is more Trumpian. It says: live through me, for I am a scruffy faux-aristocrat who has known hot women. I am effortless.
If Great Britain is his Christmas tree, he hangs progressive baubles on it: the dream is yours. Just touch it. The introductory film saw him smiling at Muslims and Jews, lord of a nation whose founding myth belongs to a time when such people were rarely admitted. He is, of course, pro-choice. He praised the idea of a carbon neutral Britain by 2050. He reprimanded Trump for his most recent racist comments, and looked pleased with himself.
Against this necromancy, Hunt is powerless. He looks small and damply middle-class. He doesn’t daydream, or flirt. He can’t speak, as Johnson does, to a national Id. He can’t speak to the hunger, because he doesn’t feel it himself. It doesn’t help that he talks like David Brent from the Office and looks like Nick Clegg: at best, a technocrat. Isn’t that what we are fleeing from?
Brexit has exposed Britain’s devotion to class; many things are exposed by the tide of Brexit. Boris the faux aristocrat could conceivably arrive by horse. Hunt might own a small SUV, and where is the glory in that?
Hunt was introduced by a 21-year-old girl, who had fled from Johnson like a spurned lover. I’m still not sure why. She called Hunt the modern Ernest Shackleton. Does that make Johnson the ice? His hands were on his hips; his jacket was off like Call Me Dave [Cameron] in 2006; he looked like he might burst into song. He tried to be funny. He mocked his name; he wondered if his personal hashtag should be #TakeaPuntonHunt; he wondered if he should call himself Hunty McHunt Face. I think he should. Even so, jokes are Boris’s battle-field and Hunt does not belong there.
His pitch is that he is a serious man, and he requires serious questions. Soon Hunty McHunt Face was bogged down in questions about mental health, hospices and tax. He responded reasonably, with some terrible flourishes. He wants to land an economic jumbo jet on Europe’s doorstep. He feels democracy in his gut. He wants to abolish literacy. (That was a mistake).
I sensed that he has already conceded: he said that the Back Boris and It Has To Be Hunt signs should merge at the end. “That is what our country deserves.” He said he would serve at the pleasure of the prime minister, and everyone leaked away.