It’s not every day that a future prime minister offers you a bribe, but that’s what happened to me 38 years ago. I was the editor of Tributary, a satirical magazine at Oxford, and Boris wanted me to pass on the editorship to him. He conveyed through an intermediary that if I did him this favour he would invite me to lots of parties. That was notable for two reasons. First, it was unnecessary — Boris was the only applicant for the job. Second, Boris hates parties.
It would be ironic if partygate is the cause of his downfall, since a love of late-night carousing is one of the few vices the Prime Minister doesn’t suffer from. He would have been cajoled into attending any social gatherings in Downing Street, forced to show his face to please his wife or staff. You wouldn’t think it to see him on telly, but he’s quite a shy man who doesn’t enjoy social interactions, particularly with other men. Indeed, I think his natural introversion and the various methods he’s developed to compensate for it are the key to his political success.
To begin with, it explains his pantomime toff persona. Too timid to face the world as himself, he decided to don a theatrical mask plucked from the dressing-up box of English stereotypes. But unlike so many others who’ve reinvented themselves as quintessential Englishmen, this grandson of a Turkish immigrant added his own brilliant twist, which was to wildly exaggerate his upper-class characteristics to make it obvious he was just pretending and didn’t expect his peers to be taken in by it.
At Eton, anyone from Boris’s background trying to pass themselves off as to the manor born would have been ridiculed mercilessly, but Al Johnson found a way to do it that avoided the usual social stigma. And that same sleight of hand — I’m going to strike this pose, but make it obvious that I don’t expect you to take it at face value because I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking you a fool — is the kernel of his electoral appeal.
It also accounts for his success as a public speaker. I don’t just mean his speeches straddle the same serious/not serious line. In addition, he uses these performances, often in front of large crowds, to obtain the emotional nourishment most of us get from ordinary human contact. Boris is hopeless one-on-one — he squirms and wriggles, unable to look you in the eye, and gives the impression he wants nothing more than to get away. But because of his peculiar psychological make-up, he has no trouble making an instant connection with a hall full of people — or a television audience of millions.
Paradoxically, he reveals more of himself to strangers than he does to his closest friends. He can suddenly look up from his notes, in much the same way the Princess of Wales did, and reveal a kind of raw vulnerability that makes him lovable. That’s a gift few politicians have.
And that brings me to the third way in which he’s turned his shyness into a political asset — it makes his friends and colleagues want to protect him. If he was a self-confident extrovert with the hide of a rhinoceros — if he was as bumptious as he seems at PMQs — he probably wouldn’t have survived the current welter of scandals. But many MPs feel an attachment to him that prompts them to go beyond self-interest.
I feel it too. That needy little boy, craving love and approval but unable to seek it from his nearest and dearest, is never far from the surface. You wouldn’t think this of someone who almost always gets what he wants, but there’s something about him that makes you want to throw your arm around him and tell him it will all be OK. He inspires loyalty because people sense his weakness, not his strength.
Will this be enough to save him? I think the reason the public is angry is because he abandoned his usual schtick when the pandemic struck and lapsed into trying to fake sincerity at those ghastly Downing Street press briefings. For the first time in his life, he asked people to take what he was saying at face value, even though he didn’t believe it himself, as his subsequent behaviour made clear. He took us for fools, in other words, and became just another scurvy politician. But the public may yet forgive him. Most people whom he’s let down at one point or another — and that includes almost everyone in his life — have ended up forgiving him.