Can he bamboozle his way back to power?
The campaign to make Boris Johnson Prime Minister again began this morning. Johnson was supposed to be saying farewell to his country and his party, but his goodbyes, as they have done all summer, sound more like advertisements for the sequel.
Aren’t partings supposed to be… sad? David Cameron went in for patrician dignity and buttoned emotion; he ended up indistinguishable from Lord Grantham watching his beloved dog die in Downton Abbey. Theresa May cried. And cried.
Johnson is just relaxed, the most satisfied man in Britain. Looking tanned after a summer spa-ing in Slovenia, pretending to be Tom Cruise, and boating about Euboea with missus no.3, Johnson gave us routine Johnson — and disturbingly, routine Johnson is orders of magnitude more compelling than Keir Starmer or Liz Truss.
Boris is not an accurate speaker. He does allusions, gags, riddles. Rather than directly express his dismay at being winched from office, the outgoing Prime Minister says he is handing over the baton “in what has unexpectedly turned out to be a relay race” where “they changed the rules halfway through”. Swaddle your bitterness up in metaphors and you can maintain a funny man reputation.
He rattles off his achievements speedily — he can barely believe what he’s saying, and he’s already said it all many times. In the past: Brexit, vaccines, Ukraine. But what about the future! There will be 40 new hospitals and 50,000 new nurses; more police; a new nuclear reactor built annually. New train lines! “Colossal” something or other. The words spark out of him. Every child will get a Playstation 5 for Christmas. Every millennial will be given a free mansion flat in Notting Hill. Smiling Ukrainians will have fresh NLAWs thrust upon them. All of us will dwell under the magnificent canopy of Johnson’s “gigabit broadband”, and lions will be horizontal with lambs.
Then he modestly compared himself to an enormous booster rocket, floating back down through the stratosphere into the ocean following a mighty explosion. Yes — those booster rockets pulled down to earth after repeatedly lying to parliament and breaking the law. You know the ones.
Ever the shy classics fan, the former Tory party leader promised threateningly to “return to his plough” like humble Cincinnatus did a few millennia ago. A bit harsh to refer to the Daily Telegraph as a plough, but fair enough. Anyway Cincinnatus, as Wikipedia revealed to everybody watching this speech, was a Roman statesman who was begged back into office by desperate colleagues after retirement.
This throwaway reference and the reaction to it — hundreds of chin-stroking tweets — gave journalists more to chew on than Liz Truss’s entire speech yesterday. Instead of talking about Johnson’s record, Twitter talked about whether he would emulate a Roman senator who died in 430 BC.
Despite everything, Boris retains his ability to bamboozle people. That is his master achievement, not imaginary nurses, or a vaccine rollout coordinated by others. It is also his route back to power. We can only pray that the sequel is a less rackety production than the first one.