The frivolity of Boris Johnson

Rory Stewart has seemed quiet since he stood down his campaign to become London mayor. The former Conservative leadership contender – and, by implication, prime ministerial contender – had argued that an independent run would be unfair on volunteers after the election was delayed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Judging by an interview with PoliticsJOE, Stewart has been occupying himself with a trip to Afghanistan, a country he has a long history with. And he’s also written a few choice words about his former leadership rival Boris Johnson, in a Times Literary Supplement review of Tom Bower’s latest biography.

For the unfamiliar, Bower specialises in hit jobs against famous figures. Recent targets include Charles Windsor, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, which shows that Bower is at least cross-party in his affections.

Some reviews have however noted an uncharacteristic sympathy in Bower’s latest work, The Gambler. Writing in the Spectator, Lynn Barber notes that Bower’s wife Veronica Wadley was a great cheerleader for Johnson as a Tory candidate for London mayor, which perhaps explains Bower’s leniency in his latest book.

Stewart also finds Bower a bit overgenerous, but is more concerned with reviewing Johnson than the book. The prime minister, Stewart writes, “is an amoral figure operating in a much bleaker and coarser culture” than the classical ideals he often references.

Johnson’s infamous fibbing is cited as one example of this, with Stewart noting that “his dishonesty has no clear political intent”. An unflattering comparison is even drawn with Niccolò Machiavelli, whose name is synonymous with underhand politics, but in pursuit of worthy aims.

On the positive side, Stewart acknowledges that Johnson is witty and charming, equipped with “a formidable memory and a facility with words”. The former international development secretary also credits Johnson with an ability not merely to sense the direction of history, but to steer it. His personality may have made the difference in the 2019 general election and the Brexit referendum, Stewart says.

As I’ve noted before, remainers love to equate Johnson and the soon-to-be-unemployed American president, Donald Trump. For those of a certain political tendency the ‘populist’ wave that put Trump into the White House and severed Britain’s relations with its continent make the pair interchangeable.

This is too simplistic and misses huge, important differences in their characters. But, as Stewart describes, there is a shared monomaniac self-interest between Johnson and Trump. Both aspired to be king of the world, and yet having won power had few plans of what to do with it.

The bloodless efficiency that Stewart represents, though admirable in many ways, has its own problems: politics is about values, not mere public service reform. But it is still a tragedy that while Johnson sits in Downing Street his former colleague Stewart is out in the cold.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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