In this week’s TLS Rory Stewart reviews Tom Bower’s biography of Boris Johnson. He doesn’t say much about the actual book, but it’s one of the most important articles on the prime minister I’ve read for a long time.
Just now, in place of ‘the prime minister’ I wrote ‘Boris’, deleted it, then wrote ‘Johnson’ and deleted it. This sums up the issue: does one buy into the charm, or conspicuously resist it? Just in the act of naming him, neutrality feels impossible: one is either too matey, or too frosty. This stands for a wider decision: does one smile at his wit, or does one wag one’s finger? Few of us want to seem like prigs who don’t get the joke, who don’t know how to lighten up. And Johnson’s stroke of genius is to edge his critics into that deadly corner.
The average critic will make three mistakes. He or she will claim not to be very impressed by the wit and charm, and will probably try to say this in a witty way. This doesn’t work: the impressiveness of Johnson’s wit and charm is a big solid fact. It’s a performance of Englishness that England simply likes (Britain maybe less so). A pundit who doubts it just sounds chippy, and the attempts at counter-wit feel little. For journalistic wit is simply a smaller-scale thing than major-public-figure wit.
The second mistake is moral disapproval of something he once said or wrote. Yes he has written things that can possibly be construed as racist and homophobic. But not that many, considering how many articles he has written. To most people, his colourful comments do not suggest that he is a dangerous bigot; they simply show that he is refreshingly unafraid of the new orthodoxies, the bossy thought-police. The critic who berates him for a dubious phrase he used years ago simply reminds people of his refusal to be bossed.
The third mistake is moral disapproval of his personal life. It makes the critic sound gossipy, and maybe envious. And also simplistic: the awkward fact is that our culture lacks a stable orthodoxy about what is morally acceptable in relation to sex. Is anyone who has an affair beyond the pale? Then you had better put down those stones.
Rory Stewart understands all this. But he also senses that Johnson must be criticised in a deep way, and not just for his day-to-day errors. He senses that a major shift is needed in the Tory psyche. Stewart acknowledges not only his wit and charm, but his uncanny gift for reading the national mood:
‘He appears able to sense and grab the tail of the galloping horse of history, when everyone else is wondering where it might be stabled.’
But then he calmly analyses his core faults: his dishonesty and his capacity for muddle and drift, rooted in his ‘lack of moral conviction’. Why do people vote for him? Does it ‘validate some conviction that there can be no true moral or political purpose, no sincere vision of self or country?’
With this question Stewart attempts to announce a new era – and particularly with the word ‘sincere’. He understands that sincerity, or earnestness, is precisely the thing that Boris shirks and mocks. Maybe we must risk seeming puritanical, in order to reject this cunning egotist posing as a ‘carnival lord of misrule’. Only so can we ‘begin to repair our political institutions and nurture a society that places more emphasis on personal and political virtue.’ It’s a bold manifesto, for the Tory psyche is deeply attached to the cavalier style. But it must be defied, says Stewart. He already hinted at this when he stood for the leadership last year. Now it is explicit. Rory Stewart is…the exorcist.