One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was so shocked by the scale of its defeat at the last election is because they just don’t understand Boris Johnson’s appeal. All of their pre-programmed, politically correct left-wing instincts told them that he is anathema to Labour voters. How could a womanising, right-wing Etonian appeal to decent working men and women? Unfortunately for Labour it was decent working men and women who won Johnson two remarkable, against the odds, victories: the EU referendum and an election landslide.
Nor was it only the Labour Party that misjudged Johnson. Tory grandees like John Major and Michael Heseltine paraded their haughty disdain and urged the Conservative faithful to reject him. Johnson proved them all wrong because, for all his flaws and privileged background, he connects with people in a way that wooden politicians like Corbyn and Major can only dream of.
The chattering class said we could not possibly leave the EU; Johnson sensed people beyond the M25 disagreed. The chattering class believed a man who said Muslim women with veils looked like ‘bank robbers’ should be gagged; Johnson sensed real people felt he had a right to say it.
Most politicians would rather die than be caught dangling from a zipwire with their trousers round their armpits in full view of the cameras; Johnson embraced the ridiculousness of it – and people laughed more with him than at him. Cynics say his ruffled blond hair and self-deprecating jokes are all part of an act. Millions of voters have decided they don’t care – they know he is only fooling around and they like what they see.
He comes across as original and authentic. Brainy enough to be a statesman and blokeish enough to topple Labour’s Red Wall of Parliamentary seats in the North and Midlands. Which is why I believe the news that he has caught coronavirus may further enhance his working class Tory hero status.
Some pundits are puzzled that despite criticism for not ordering a coronavirus lockdown sooner, Johnson’s popularity ratings have not been dented. His advisers say it is because he knew intuitively it would be ‘un-British’ – until the scientists said we had no choice.
The same logic suggests that rather than say he has himself to blame for getting ill, his admirers will be impressed that, instead of demanding the special protection a more distant prime minister could have sought, Boris the bulldog isn’t the type to let a spot of coronavirus interrupt his attempt to stop everyone else from getting it.
He has spent years lampooning health and safety laws – most notably by defending the mayor in the movie Jaws who kept the beach open. Eccentric or plain daft perhaps, but you cannot call him a hypocrite. Not when he is coughing right now, cooped up in his Downing St flat working as best he can like millions of others.
Indeed it may be tougher for him than most. He will be on his own for a week, deprived of contact with his heavily pregnant partner Carrie Symonds. It sends out the same powerful message that helped him win Brexit and become Prime Minister: underneath the scruffy blond thatch, plummy vowels and Classical allusions – I am just like you.
On D Day in WW2 Winston Churchill wanted to stand on the quarterdeck of one of the warships as it sailed to Normandy. He was only prevented from doing so when King George VI wanted to go too. Churchill wouldn’t let him so they agreed neither would go. Johnson had no say whether he would join the thousands of others of Britons who have caught coronavirus. But as a fit 55-year-old with every reason to believe he will come through it safely, he can expect to be mobbed for even more selfies next time he appears in public.
Now compare and contrast with Corbyn’s lame farewell interview as Labour leader with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. A week before he steps down, you would think a degree of humility would be appropriate. Instead he used the coronavirus crisis to claim the government’s rescue package proves he was right all along.
Let’s put aside the tastelessness of using a pandemic to award himself a heroic valedictory and ignore the fatuousness of suggesting that, if he had been able to order a Venezuela style socialist state spending spree, we would have cracked Covid-19 in a jiffy. Venezuela is currently waiting in terror for coronavirus to arrive, knowing it can do little to control it – mainly because it is bankrupt.
Corbyn’s BBC interview is like his head in the sand reaction to his election defeat, when he claimed he had ‘won the argument.’ Or his holier than thou response to overwhelming evidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party. His complaint to Kuenssberg of having been ‘denounced’ for calling for more state spending is the language of the modern victim culture. Very un-British.
Compare his self-pitying tone with Johnson’s stoic video address to the nation from the Downing St flat. Very British. His cheeks were red, eyes puffy, but there was barely a word about having coronavirus himself. The chasm between the two is not just one of politics, it is one of character.
Simon Walters is Assistant Editor (politics) of the Daily Mail.
The Borisaurus: The Dictionary of Boris Johnson, by Simon Walters is published on 9th April, by Biteback Publishing, priced £12.99.