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The best PM we never had

We've had three hundred years of British premiers — but did the right person always win?

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April 6, 2021

I’ve been transfixed, these last twelve months, by the zest with which Boris Johnson bangs elbows with startled strangers wherever the photo opportunity takes him — to vaccination hubs in Bristol, to helicopter command stations in Northern Ireland, to bagel bakeries in North London. Is it fanciful of me to suppose that, when the long day’s task is done, he retires to the rear of Downing Street, has someone pour him a gin and tonic, and bangs elbows with his wife and baby?

Many of the world’s leaders employ this greeting but along the same plane as a handshake; Boris Johnson offers his elbow with a sudden and even feral twist of his torso, as though it’s the first step in an elaborate South Sea courtship ritual he has still to learn the rest of. Above his mask, his eyes are smiling like those of a child who knows he has been bad but hopes he will be loved for it.

I recall seeing him do this on television — perhaps for the first time — just before the national lockdown in March 2020. He was about to shake hands with someone — something tells me it was Matt Hancock — then remembered that shaking hands wasn’t allowed, swivelled, stuck out a hip, and did his elbow jive. From the expression on Matt Hancock’s face you’d guess he thought he was being given the elbow in the being-dumped-by-a-lover sense. A look of impending catastrophe he’s carried ever since.

Most of us had been elbowing one another for weeks by the time Boris Johnson got going, and had progressed to more sedate, and safer, forms of salutation. My preferred method was to maintain a distance of three elephants with extended trunks and throw my arms wide in cosmological bafflement, much as Moses must have done when he came down from meeting God on the mountain and found the Israelities dancing round a cow. Otherwise it seemed both prudent and befitting the solemnity of events simply to wave or incline one’s head. There is a limit — is all I’m saying — to how long you can go on finding bumping elbows entertaining.

But not for Boris Johnson. Thirteen months down the line he is as delighted by it as ever, his capacity to be amused by himself inexhaustible. One has to be churlish indeed not to find this beguiling. The boy in the man will always charm and the boy in the holder of a serious office of state will charm still more. I speak for many who were never little boys even when they were little boys when I say I marvel at the resilience. How, when all around is stress and sorrow, is it possible to find so much fun in so little?

There is, I accept, no point longing for the days when Prime Ministers and Emperors were philosophers and men of letters. They seem like relics of another humanity — Benjamin Disraeli who wrote more than a dozen novels before he became Prime Minister;  Vaclac Havel who wrote plays and essays prior to assuming the Presidency of the Czech Republic; the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who said “Pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.” Voters today would rather elect a clown than a serious writer or a thinker. As witness the clowns and comedians who have taken to the political stage in Ukraine, Guatemala, Slovenia, Italy, America — if you allow that a clown can still be a clown even if he isn’t funny — and now here.

Boris Johnson’s clowning has been in evidence for decades. He can do slapstick without trying, whether trapped on a zip-wire above the Olympic Park, or just climbing onto a bicycle in shorts that ride up in a way that no man should ever want them to.  He can be little-boy-lost to his female constituents and suggest an erotic incorrigibility beneath the bumbling that his male admirers find comfort in. For the sake of a laugh he will dump his dignity. He is the fool that gets the girls and the buffoon that wins high office. Is it, after all, too much to expect him to be Prime Minister as well?

Given that his clowning has always felt opportunistic — as calculated as the precisely tousled hair or the bungled notes — are we to think of Johnson as a clown who prat-fell his way backwards up the ladder into politics or a politician who tripped himself down the snake into comedy? I suspect the uncertainty partly explains why he see-saws violently in the opinion polls. He catches us on the way up and on the way down. For a week or two after he contracted the Virus it looked as though the experience might have made a philosopher of him. “He has lines in his face he didn’t have before,” I told my wife. “I believe I detect something in his bearing that could be gravitas.”

“That’s the medication,” she said. And she turned out to be right. Soon the elbows came out again and the eyes resumed their roguish twinkle.

For the ethos by which he lives is not after all that of the Athens of Pericles or Octavian but the circus where White-faces and Augustes exchange insults, fall over buckets and bump elbows. If he is guided by a single motto it is that the show must go on.

Admirable words, were this a show and Prime Ministership a comic interval between the acrobats and trapeze artists. But the pandemic is and always was of a seriousness that mirth might on occasions have alleviated, but should never have been allowed near at the outset. For mirth, in those early days, stood in the way of serious fears and sensible precautions. It is true that Johnson did not play the hooligan and capsize the ship of state as Trump did, but he told us not to worry, showed us how he’d shaken the hands of nurses and doctors in hospitals and, as chief of the “Jumblies,” escorted us to the shore line and put us to sea in a sieve.

Pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments, and levity, when it is not moderated by circumstances, is lethal. A good Prime Minister would have moderated his extravagances to these circumstances. Cometh the hour, cometh the leader; but cometh this hour, cometh the Clown. “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,” proclaims Fortinbras in the final speech of the play. “For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royally.” It is a sad realisation of wasted gifts.

Given his talents as an entertainer, Boris Johnson might have proved most Prime Ministerial had he been tested in another sort of production. But then again he might not. If any further proof were needed that he would sacrifice the whole world to please a roomful of his auditors, it came when he told a meeting of the faithful the other night that the undoubted success of the vaccine production and roll-out was due to “greed, my friends”, thereby demeaning the achievement and good-will of thousands of scientists and volunteers, and showing that he is stone deaf to the national mood. No Prime Minister thinking like a Prime Minister would ever make a mistake of that magnitude or assume that an elbow-jig could redeem it. Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister we do not have.