Scarcely a day goes by without Boris Johnson staging some sort of photo opportunity. If he’s not in a hard hat, he’s holding a sausage, twiddling a knob or doing his best to break a tram (and more likely than not, a promise). It’s easier than actually running the country and, one assumes, is supposed to show that the prime minister is one of us, as comfortable in hi vis as a Hermes tie. Or, it turns out, a private jet. Yes, here comes the man of the people.
On Wednesday evening, the prime minister arrived in Cornwall for the G7 summit, having flown the considerable distance from London to Newquay. Now Johnson is not, I think it’s fair to say, a details man – but surely even he knows that high on the agenda at this summit is climate change and what we might all do to stop it? And surely even he knows that flying is not terribly good for doing so?
No matter and no shame. Up went the booming social media post, shortly after 5pm, a photograph of Johnson on the steps of his jet, thumbs up to the world. Greetings! “I’ve arrived in Cornwall for this year’s G7,” the post read, “where I’ll be asking my fellow leaders to rise to the challenge of beating the pandemic and building back better, fairer and greener.” Plenty of spluttering from those meeting Johnson at the airport – greener! – or perhaps it was just the filthy fumes.
Reporters on the scene were quick to ask the prime minister if this, really, was the most sustainable way of getting around the UK. Could he not, for example, have taken the train (four hours) or a car (five hours, depending on the state of the A303)? He could not.
“If you attack my arrival by plane,” Johnson huffed, “I respectfully point out that the UK is actually in the lead in developing sustainable aviation fuel. One of the points in the 10-point plan of our green industrial revolution is to get to jet zero as well as net zero.”
It is worth lingering on the choice of words here – “is to get to” might sound immediate but actually tells us that the work is far from done. You may as well stuff your face with junk food, while telling the doctor that your ambition “is to get to” a reasonable weight. The doctor, you hope, might tactfully point out that the time to start is now.
This, of course, is classic Johnson. Words matter to him far more than deeds. In Tom McTague’s superb profile of the prime minister, published recently in The Atlantic, he points out that Johnsonism is defined by “four interlocking principles”, one of which is that “ideas matter because people believe them, not because they are true”.
So, Johnson is more than happy to tell the world that he is committed to building a greener future, not because it is true, but because he wants you to believe it. Arriving in Cornwall for a summit about climate change on a private jet might seem like a blunder – but it’s not if you can just tell people that, actually, all that stuff about pollution is cobblers because we are aiming to be “jet zero as well as net zero”. As you were, then.
We know that scandal and mishaps don’t really stick to Johnson. Expensive wallpaper, bodies piled high, an angry ex-adviser – none of this stuff seems to matter to voters. And so Johnson becomes ever more brazen. This latest kerfuffle about a jet is a bit silly, we think. It’s just Boris being Boris.
It’s hard to imagine, say, Keir Starmer making the same mistake. He would be so nervous about putting a foot wrong, his team would map out the greenest possible route, probably hitchhiking from the outskirts of London. Don’t believe me? Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, described Johnson’s actions as “plane stupid”.
And this is why the story matters. Boris Johnson has thrived, despite his terrible errors of judgement – and, indeed, of government. Other politicians would have suffered miserably had they made the same mistakes.
This is both toxic and intoxicating. Johnson no longer cares, because he has realised that we no longer care. If he wants to fly from London to Newquay, he will. And stuff the media for even asking why. Quite scary, when put like that. Anyway, something for us all to think about on the train home tonight.
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