One of the ways in which Boris Johnson’s opponents underestimate him is that they think he is not serious – that he is “trivial”, in Keir Starmer’s biting line in his speech to the Labour Party conference. They say he is a clown as if that is a bad thing; as if being a jester precludes a serious purpose.
That is, I think, to misunderstand the point of jesters through the ages. Once upon a time, they were employed to remind monarchs of their mortality, and if the people are sovereign now, then Johnson is certainly taking seriously his duty to remind us of our mortality as the UN climate change summit gets underway in Glasgow.
“Humanity, civilisation and society can go backwards as well as forwards and when they start to go wrong, they can go wrong at extraordinary speed,” he said on the plane to Rome for the G20, a pre-meeting for the big do. “You saw that with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: people lost the ability to read and write and the ability to draw properly. They lost the way to build in the way that the Romans did.”
For someone who is known for his boosterish and misleading optimism, Johnson’s lowering of expectations before the summit has swung into deep pessimism. Switching to a football metaphor, he said: “If this was half-time, I would say we were about 5-1 down.” This was such a negative assessment that the attempt to switch back to uplift in the next sentence carried almost no weight: “We have a long way to go, but we can do it.”
His optimism is never simple. It often seems to arise from a gloomy view of the world. He said he would get Brexit done with no idea how; no one seemed more surprised than he when he succeeded; and no one seemed less surprised when success turned out to bring with it a new train of difficulties.
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A lot of Johnson’s humour is bleak around the edges, like Douglas Adams’s. I was struck at the time by the line in the prime minister’s party conference speech last year, about being prepared, after Covid, for “whatever the next cosmic spanner may be, hurtling towards us in the dark”. Sometimes, he is a jocular pessimist. This means he can be both trivial and serious at the same time, as when he is comparing the effort to avoid global environmental disaster with a half-time pep talk in a football match: “We need to spit out our oranges and get back on the pitch.”
So when his critics say he is the wrong person to host the world’s talks on the climate crisis challenge – Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, suggested as much in these pages yesterday – they may misjudge him.
I thought it was surprising yesterday that he admitted that he had only become convinced of the need for action since he became prime minister. He said he was briefed by government scientists soon after arriving in Downing Street in 2019: “I got them to run through it all and, if you look at the almost vertical kink upward in the temperature graph, the anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute.”
Andrew Grice pointed out in an article tracing Johnson’s “road to Damascus” conversion that, despite his father Stanley being a Conservative green activist, Boris as a columnist adopted The Daily Telegraph’s scepticism about the climate crisis – even in 2013 suggesting that climate change denier Piers Corbyn might be right.
Yet perhaps it takes someone as inconsistent and contradictory as Johnson to understand how to persuade other world leaders out of a view that he only recently held, however insecurely, himself.
And it may be that the clown act – or the jocular pessimism – is an effective technique in private discussions with those world leaders. I am told that in face-to-face meetings, they often go into the room with Johnson expecting a tough and serious discussion but come out all smiles and in boisterous agreement. As Paul Waugh of the i paper put it, “he disarms sceptics not just with his humour but also with a directness and an appeal to political self-interest, pointing to the potential profits of environmental first-mover advantage”.
So Johnson can indeed be trivial – as when in his address to the UN he said Kermit the Frog was wrong to say “it’s not easy being green” – but he contains more multitudes than Walt Whitman.
The Glasgow summit could well be a failure – or, as Johnson has already redefined it, a “way station towards a future agreement that will enable us to do even more” – but it may not be that the prime minister was the wrong person to host it.
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