The Prime Minister's career started and ended on screen
Boris Johnson’s story is nearly over. It has been told so many times that it no longer makes any sense at all. New York, 1964. Father (philanderer); mother (depressive). They all — and it is all, for this is as much a clan as it is a family — have the same face. Scholarship boy at Eton. Learns to embody Wodehouse’s prose. This should unnerve people but they like it. Chums, debates, Oxford — upper second-class degree. Sacked from the Times for lying, but has the last laugh. His skill is making disaster work for him. Goes to Brussels, goes to the Spectator, goes to Henley. Marriages; mistresses; mayoralty. Takes Britain out of the European Union by accident — whoops! Prime Minister: not during peaceful years when he can write a book about Shakespeare, but during grimly austere plague years — cripes!
How to make sense of this bewildering tale? Television. Boris — like Theodore Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, and Winston Churchill — was a print journalist turned politician, but he was made by television. He never would have been Prime Minister without it.
For decades British culture has understood itself, primarily, through television. Its influence is so pervasive that it is almost invisible. The critical point, as the media theorist Neil Postman once put it, is that “how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly staged.”
In the noughties, as Britain became more divided and more unequal, television became ever more twee. A new upper-middle class ethic of bashful faux-amateurism prettified programming. Undeniably posh fantasy figures were everywhere, and aspirational. Frivolous boarding school types hijacked the culture: head girl Nigella Lawson, hockey captain Clare Balding, bullish prankster Jeremy Clarkson, and, of course, the class clown — Boris Johnson.
The line between entertainment and politics has always been blurred. (There is a reason why Gore Vidal used to refer to Ronald Reagan as an “indolent cue card reader”.) Audiences want to be entertained, not bored, whether they are watching the news or a soap. Watch Johnson’s insanely charismatic appearance on Eastenders in 2009 again. Barbara Windsor melts. (They didn’t, did they?) Then there is Johnson being called — quite fairly — a “nasty piece of work” by Eddie Mair in 2013. He should have been done then. It should have been embarrassing. Instead, he charms, makes you laugh, makes you feel sorry for him.
Boris is done now, but not because Tory MPs are turning on him. He looks terrible on television and has done for months. He no longer fits on the stage. On Sky yesterday he was transparent, the same colour as a glass of water. Johnson apologised, looked at the floor, and sighed. His career began on television. Now it has finished on air too.