If Boris Johnson is half as clever as many think, or one 219th as clever as he thinks himself, he will act on David Axelrod’s injunction about never letting a crisis go to waste. This assumes, of course, that Sunday’s scything into weeny pieces by Eddie “Edward Scissormouth” Mair constitutes a real crisis for the rascal, which I doubt rather more than my esteemed colleague Steve Richards.
In a world on nodding terms with olde worlde normality, where such fuddy-duddy virtues as honesty, integrity and plain decency were what the classical scholar would call sine qua nons for the highest office, that would be that for Boris. But the centre ground of normalcy has shifted since the last political interview that had me literally gasping at its brutality.
That came on another black Sabbath for a blond Tory pin-up back in November 1990, soon after Nigel Lawson’s resignation as Chancellor, when Brian Walden told Margaret Thatcher that her backbenchers were calling her “a nutter”. Like Boris on Sunday, she did not linger in the green room for the amiable post-show drink. A year later she made her teary exit.
How much that interview contributed to her fall is hard to gauge. Other trivial factors, such as the poll tax and Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech, played their part. Yet little challenges the myth of a politician’s invulnerability like somebody saying in public what others have been thinking, but been too polite or nervous to say publicly themselves. There is a chance that what “nutter” did to Thatcher, “nasty piece of work” will do to Boris. I suspect, as above, that it is a smaller chance than others presume. Sunday morning telly ratings seldom give Ant’n’Dec cause for insomnia, and if a clutch of polls find that Boris is as beloved as ever, this may boost his chances by cementing the Teflon reputation.
He ought not to bank on that. Having lacked Bill Clinton’s legalistic cuteness when quizzed about fibbing over the extra-maritals, he should now model himself on the confessional Clinton’s prayer breakfast “Ah. Have. Sinned” in another set-piece interview. You know the schtick. “Strike me pink, I’ve never claimed to be a saint ... I’ve let myself and others down ... I’m a weak and feeble sinner, as so many of us are, though not I hope a nasty piece of work ...” Ten minutes of transparently synthetic, typically charming penitence, and he might come out ahead of the game, his appeal as a metapolitician enhanced.
The weird and unsettling thing ... actually, it’s far worse than that. The mortifying thing for me is that midway through Monday’s Michael Cockerell documentary, I found myself actively wanting to see the rogue in Downing Street. This has next to nothing to do with the “feelgood” value identified by Ian Hislop, who likened him to Berlusconi, and less with any belief that he would make a good or even adequate PM. Almost certainly, this inveterate and invertebrate political shape-shifter would not.
Part of it, to be honest, is a desire for more access to the Johnson clan. His columnist sister, Rachel, stole the show with a glorious display of sibling-rivalry mischief-making, reflecting with the ghoulish grin of one who has just landed her elder brother in strife with nanny on Boris’s superiority complex regarding David Cameron. Boris’s mother recalled the 18- month-old Boris’s face as a blend of mystification and murderous rage when she brought the new-born Rachel home. For a toddler, he showed remarkable prescience about the challenge to his supremacy. Some 45 years on, Rachel could not have tried harder or more deftly to ruin his chances. If she proves to have failed, she would make a reliably entertaining First Sister.
As for their father, the shambolic and narcissistic Stanley – falling apples, tape measures, trees, etc – described Mr Mair’s efforts as one of the most disgusting instances of journalism ever (payback time, surely: taxi to the Radio 4 PM studio, a Mr Darius Guppy). In Stanley, we saw the makings of one of England’s premier buffoons. With Westminster’s Addams Family on the loose, within a week of Boris entering No 10 the embarrassing relatives’ live commentary would be: “Roger Clinton, Terry Major-Ball, Billy Carter, Tony Booth .. can you hear me, Imelda Marcos, can you hear me? You lot are taking a hell of a beating.” Life for diarists and political pundits would improve immeasurably, which strikes me as a very reasonable price to pay for the national shame of having Boris Johnson as prime minister.
Yet the most compelling reason for the volte-face that has me craving this outcome is taken, in honour of Boris’s classical erudition, from I, Claudius. That Emperor made his stepson, Nero, heir to the imperial throne not because he thought he would do the job well. He did it knowing that Nero would be a disaster, his mantra being: “Let all the poison that lurks beneath the pond hatch out.” Claudius imagined that Nero’s reign would so horrify Rome that it would have to come to its senses and restore the Republic. Although that proved naive, the worst that would be likely to happen under Boris is that ancient history would repeat itself as modern farce.
The prospect of a prime ministerial Nero, who never stops playing the liar and who fiddled about in his Canadian camper van while London burned, proposes a series of questions that need answering. Do we, any more than today’s Italians, care if a leader is a scoundrel and/or a second-rate comedian? Has conventional morality lost all relevance? Is the pre-eminence of celebrity over decency more than a media-propagated canard? Does the identity of a British PM count for very much anyway now that second-tier nations resemble flimsy vessels steered not by gentle domestic breezes, which can barely swing a chap on a mid-air zip wire, but the typhoons of globalised markets? Have we, as a country, formally given up on serious politics?
At a time when the impotence of politicians induces such nihilistic despair, perhaps a semi-albino Nero would be the solution, crystallising the subdued sense of end-of-days hysteria while sating the appetite for insta-satirical commentary on the hopelessness we feel. It may seem a high-risk gamble, because the day Nero Johnson waved faux sheepishly from the No 10 doorstep might be the moment we could give up on Britain ever coming to its senses. But beggars, choosers, and all that. Can anyone plausibly explain to me what it is that we have to lose?