Johnson: the former journalist returns, but to the bad news business from now on

One almost begins to feel sorry for Boris Johnson, a journalist by training but a court jester by inclination. He has spent years climbing his cursus honorum as he calls it, his ladder to success, only to find when he reached the summit things are not as he imagined. Coronavirus has turned his crown of laurels into one of thorns.

Instead of being able to dispense happiness over an expectant nation emerging from years of austerity, he will have to become gloom-monger in chief, a calling he utterly despises. From now on he will be permanently engaged in the bad news business, stretching as far ahead as any political commentator can see. Coronavirus and the accompanying economic shock will see to that. An inevitable public inquiry into his response will drag on for years sucking the life and solidarity out of his administration.

Johnson thinks of himself as Churchill, others see him as Chamberlain but in truth he is closer to Tommy Cooper now supremely miscast as a funeral director in a Harold Pinter play. You can see it will never work. It’s hard to imagine anyone more spectacularly ill-equipped to deliver hard truths. He is fundamentally unserious, a malicious grin always playing hide and seek on his lips. Tony Blair famously didn’t “do God” but Johnson cannot do grave.

The years of shameless self-promotion were surely never intended for this moment?

The Washington Post once argued that the bumbling persona was an act and he was really a power hungry nihilist. I don’t accept that description at all. The comedy is not a front. This is the real Johnson, what you see is what you get.

He is a shallow celebrity who has always existed in the froth that drifts above the hard and sometimes dreary reality of life; a life which in his case, is for the most part a performance full of promise, all of it empty. It does not equip him for what lies ahead.

His premiership for the first five months consisted of political stalemate. It was like watching several fat men, his government, the opposition, peers, the ERG and the DUP, trying to get through a revolving door at the same time. The election finally spat them out in December but his triumph has been short-lived.

In Greenwich at the start of February he misquoted Tennyson to an assembly of reporters and diplomats and told them that HMS Brexit was about to set sail, “There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast”. The fore and aft lines were cast off and he put to sea just as storm Covid broke with a force-twelve headwind, and the captain’s compass broken and rusted on the gimbal. We have no idea where we will end up. It will either be the rocks or if we’re lucky, a sandbank

There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast

Boris Johnson MISquoting Tennyson, Greenwich 3 February 2020

For many leaders the first one hundred days are an important political milestone with achievements ticked off to a blaze of publicity. Johnson is different and probably unique. The PM has been in office a little over 250 days, excluding the three weeks in December’s election campaign, with nothing in domestic terms to show for it

And now just the prospect of an endless succession of bad news ahead. Boris Johnson’s reserves of optimism are going to be tested as never before.

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