We all know which American politician Boris Johnson is supposed to most closely resemble. Comparisons between the Prime Minister and the president have been ubiquitous ever since they led twin revolutions on either side of the Atlantic in 2016. But is the idea that these leaders’ fates are intertwined blinding us to a more illuminating transatlantic parallel, not between Boris and Trump, but between Boris and Trump’s Democratic opponent? Rather than Boris being the British Trump, is Joe Biden the American Boris?
Superficially, the comparison might make not make much sense. In many ways, Boris and Biden are stylistically very different. A Boris speech will usually at least be entertaining. A Joe Biden speech is unfailingly soporific. Boris is happy to pirouette his way through long sentences, dropping classical allusions and colourful metaphors as he goes. Biden is a lot less rhetorically ambitious, despite Johnsonian fondness for digression. One is a dishevelled blond gorilla in a suit, the other is trim and well-tailored.
But the important thing isn’t whether Boris and Biden look or sound similar. It’s that they both pride themselves on a free-wheeling approach that often lands them in trouble but also explains a significant part of their appeal. They defy best practise in Westminster and Washington and get away with it. Both are gaffe-prone but occupy a spot on the political landscape as imperfect yet reassuring and familiar figures.
Unlike Trump, a genuine political outsider, both Biden and Boris are consummate insiders capable of striking a convincingly outsiderish pose. Biden has his Average-Joe-from-Scranton schtick. Boris has cultivated an improbably toffish kind of authenticity. Other politicians have tried something similar. Few have succeeded.
Both do better outside their respective bubbles. Not long before the victory in the Conservative leadership election that put him in Downing Street, Boris was widely seen as a busted flush among the commentariat. Biden’s political obituaries were all-but-written after the first few states of this year’s Democratic primary. In each case, they proved the doubters wrong, and did so because of their enduring popularity among the party faithful.
Biden and Boris are also similarly ideologically flexible, twisting their own politics to the moment, and never deviating too far from the midpoint of their respective parties. Boris was a metropolitan moderniser when it suited him, before leading the Brexit revolution when the political weather changed. Biden has ditched unfashionable views — on abortion, criminal justice and welfare for example — as his party has moved leftwards, though he did so with more awareness of the gap between the views of the Democratic elite and the median voter than other presidential hopefuls. And on substantive policy positions, Biden and Boris are no further apart than Boris and Trump. Yes, Boris and Trump are both labelled populist, and both led revolts against the liberal pro-globalisation orthodoxy. But whereas Trump really is interested in overturning the apple cart, Boris’s populism is more patrician: Brexit as a safety valve not a revolution. Indeed, when it comes to trade and immigration — the two animating issues of Trumpism — Boris’s own positions are broadly liberal, and bears far closer resemblance to Biden than to Trump.
The Boris-Biden comparison is most instructive when it comes to last year’s General Election and the ways in which its echoes might be heard in November’s presidential contest. In the US, the Conservatives’ romp to victory was chalked up as a win for national conservatism and taken to be a good omen for Trump’s re-election bid.
But it is Biden who should be most heartened by the result. To understand why, you need to understand that three words that decided the election. 'Get Brexit Done' was focus-group tested to death and repeated by Johnson on the campaign trail ad nauseam. It was designed to suck the ideology out of Brexit and make the case for the Conservatives as the party that offered to turn the page on an exhausting, nerve-fraying time in British politics. Boris didn’t dwell on the specifics of the sort of Brexit he wanted, nor did he tempt voters with anything else beyond a short list of spending promises. His message was a clear, simple promise to return British politics to something approaching normalcy. And it worked.
The American parallel is Biden’s laser-like focus on bringing the Trump presidency to an end. Like Boris, Biden is running a campaign with an uninspiring central message, light on Green New Deals and Medicare for All, heavy on the prospect of a day when you don’t have to worry what the President has tweeted. The lesson from Britain is that boring can work, and that there is significant political mileage in a promise ‘stop the madness’.
With the Democratic left resigned to a Biden candidacy, they see Covid-19 as a chance to steer Biden leftwards, arguing that old certainties need to be adjusted to the new normal. But Biden should learn from the British example and not be afraid of being as boring as Boris.