The curse of personality politics: We love Boris Johnson only because he's good at wooing us...

... while Ed Miliband seems unable to avoid our disdain

One politician lays a wreath at an event to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. Like all but one of the other grandees asked to do so, he is given no time to write something to go with it, and so instead is presented with a perfunctory note, attached by the organisers, that simply says who it is from, in a comically loopy script. Another politician specifically breaks his word to those who elected him by taking on another job at the same time, because his ambitions have come into conflict with his promise. Which one gets it in the neck?

There's no way of posing that question that disguises the fact that it's a trick. Even if you've missed the specific events of last week that I'm talking about, you know how it goes: it was Ed Miliband who failed to write a note of his own, and Boris Johnson who did the thing that he swore he wouldn't. And a day after Miliband was ridiculed and vilified over a piece of trivia, and told that it showed exactly why he couldn't cut it, Johnson was exalted as a future prime minister without regard for his broken promise.

This is not a party political point. There are showmen and yeomen on both sides, and no ideology has a monopoly on empty pledges. This concerns a longstanding complaint about our politics that has recently hardened into a truism, an observation so self-evident that we are told there is no point in complaining about it any more by those whose acceptance has grown into a tacit endorsement. Ed Miliband gaffed; Boris Johnson broke a promise. But the latter got away with it, and the former was punished, because gaffes matter more than misdemeanours. Style has triumphed over substance.

Actually, it's worse than that: we have reached a consensus that style is substance, and the only substance that counts. Ed Miliband's way of eating a bacon sandwich has a far greater effect on his electability than Boris Johnson's invention of a quote when working as a journalist, or his lie to Michael Howard, the then Tory leader, over an affair or even the affair itself. Indeed, for Boris, the accumulation of these transgressions – these scrapes, jams, pickles, these gross errors of judgement – has become an intrinsic part of his buccaneering charm, the very thing that sets him apart from the men in grey suits. When they are brought up, he takes on the charmingly wounded air of the Terry-Thomas rotter confronted with his colourful past. It's all nonsense, old thing, he blusters. And in any case, it happened such a long time ago!

Performance has always mattered, of course. Any politician making bungling presentational errors that chime with a more general sense of incompetence is bound to pay a price. Damian McBride, who as a former adviser to Gordon Brown knows what a minefield it can be, had a point when he wrote that the whole wreath episode was a cock-up, and damningly indicative of incompetence and dismay on team Miliband. In this telling, the Labour leader's recent speech, in which he tried to make a virtue of his failings as a salesman, has left his advisers paralysed with fear lest they be caught doing anything that seems to prioritise image over policy. And McBride is right. Politicians must operate in the world as it is if they wish to win, and a failure to contend with it adequately really matters.

This is fine as a narrow diagnosis of a political problem. Where it falls short is as a prescription for our response. It's one thing for political analysts to note these shortcomings, quite another for the rest of us to treat them with the sorrowful scorn that ought properly to be reserved for failings that have some kind of moral dimension. This is what has changed, I think: we talk about this stuff without even paying lip service to the idea that it's shallow to do so. Others fall for this presentational crap, we think: our interest in it is strictly as an index of more general competence, so it's fine. It's actually rather sophisticated. But if enough people engage with this sort of nonsense with such self-delusion, instead of humourlessly pointing out that it doesn't matter how Ed Miliband eats a sandwich, then it doesn't really matter how watertight their rationale is, they are still driving it to the centre of the debate, and driving out other things that should be there.

Like about 50 per cent of modern life, this process recalls Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise, which features a remarkable tourist attraction, The Most Photographed Barn in America, self-perpetuatingly notable only for how many people pay attention to it. "No one sees the barn," says Murray, an academic on a day trip. "What was the barn like before it was photographed?... We can't answer the question because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura."

Miliband and Johnson are the barns, and we're the aura: we love Johnson because he is good at making us love him, and we feel disdain for Miliband because he seems incapable of stopping it.

It's possible that we will see a heartening correction to this process. Miliband's seemingly ill-advised admission that he's hopeless with photo-ops may, against all the odds, inspire a new seriousness in the press and the public, and the Wallace-without-Gromit jokes may give way to a new judgement on his policies. The power of Johnson's bluster may wear thin as people begin to consider him in a position of real power and start to ask questions about his capacities as an executive – which, by the way, may very well be considerable.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. I think of Eddie Mair's interview with Johnson in March last year, well-known as one of the very few times that a media interrogator has brushed off the BoJo charm and paid scrupulous attention to his chequered past. "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?" asked Mair, a question so rude that Boris began to appear genuinely flustered, instead of the pantomime version of that state that he usually deploys. Taken to task on every one of the most troubling points on his CV, Johnson might as well have been waving a white flag by the interview's end. Perhaps, you felt, the power of his charm was not as bottomless as it might have seemed.

Not a chance. Four days later, the Evening Standard ran another story about Boris on their front page. "VOTERS SAY BORIS MUST LEAD TORIES", ran the headline, revealing that a new poll had shown the party's fortunes would be transformed should London's Mayor ascend to No 10. Mair's interview, Johnson said, had been "splendid". If anything, it turned out, the confrontation had made people like him more.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities