The name of Britain’s new prime minister isn’t actually “Boris.” “Boris” is a stage name, jokey and lighthearted. His close friends and family call him “Al”—short for Alexander, a rather weightier nomenclature—and this small fact about this interesting, likeable, but worrying person seems important. Why would a politician need a stage name?
Many British journalists have met Johnson and most of them have found it fun to do so. He once talked me into a prank that ended with me putting myself forward as a possible Conservative Parliamentary candidate—something I had started the day with no intention of doing. Luckily for me and for them, I was duly shown the door without so much as an interview, but I have been haunted by the moment ever since. What if it had actually happened?
What I noticed about Mr. Johnson very early on was just how much of an act he was. The first time you heard a speech by “Boris,” you chortled a lot. The second time, you chortled a little less. The third time, not at all. But his reputation as a Wodehousian genius means that he need only say “good afternoon” to a room full of elderly Conservatives (almost the only kind of Conservative there is in modern Britain), and they will begin wheezing with mirth and mopping their rheumy eyes.
Examined with a cold, unkind gaze (of the sort that I have), he has little to say, and much of it is socially liberal. He is a kind of Etonian Tony Blair, onto whom people project desires and beliefs at will. There is no actual connection between these projections and the man himself. If he is Wodehousian, he is the slightly sinister, conspiratorial Jeeves—not the harmless Bertie Wooster he would have us think him to be. During our little plot years ago I noticed just how professionally clued up he was on the intricate, wearisome, humiliating processes by which a normal human being can become a Member of Parliament. In this respect, there was nothing bumbling about him at all. Oddly, he seems much more professional about winning power than about using it—as if the power itself was the thing he desired, rather than the ability to use it for any particular purpose.
It is not all calculation. For instance, many have told me how impressive he has been in his quiet, unpublicized fundraising for charities close to his heart. But a lot of it is calculation. And while his charm is considerable, and in his presence it is hard to believe that he wishes anyone ill, he is quite prepared to hand over the dirty work of power to lieutenants who have no charm at all, such as the strange former defence secretary Gavin Williamson. Williamson seems to have studied his craft at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Sweetness and Light. Tory parliamentarians are accustomed to tact and good manners even when they are being threatened, and they grumbled indignantly that Williamson crudely offered them a straight choice between backing Johnson immediately or facing eternal career doom.
I cannot say if these accounts are true. And I cannot say exactly where the impulse for the change in mood came from. But it was certainly the case, once it was evident that Johnson would get the job, that it was time to either become a worshipper or prepare for a life in exile. Lots of MPs and former ministers, who had publicly mocked Johnson for his personal chaos or for his many political failings, began to say complimentary things about him instead. Those who had gone too far for that simply resigned before they were fired. The most notable of these was Foreign Office Junior Minister Alan Duncan, who once memorably remarked that he had been Johnson’s “pooper-scooper” during his time as foreign secretary, hurrying along behind him to clear up the nasty messes he had made. I cannot help thinking that, if Johnson was really as humorous as he likes to appear, he would find it in his heart to insist that Alan Duncan stay in his government, as there will be plenty of poop to scoop. But that is not the atmosphere at Westminster at the moment. The House of Commons has come to resemble some 1930s Continental legislature—full of real hostility and bitterness within and between the parties—much more than it resembles the old rowdy but ultimately gentle British Parliament.
And here is the grim thing. Children often find clowns frightening, with good reason. The clown’s face at rest is full of worry and woe, and so, if you look carefully, is Mr. Johnson’s. Many people in Britain are uncharmed by the Boris act, his jollity and unseriousness. Many others, poor and angry, support him in spite of these things, in spite of his Drones Club chuckle and moneyed Etonian bray, because they think he is in fact one of them, passionate to leave the European Union at any cost—or so they say now. But is he one of them? And do they really know how much it could cost, if badly handled?
Between these two camps is a great mass of the bewildered, who grew up in a country where it seemed that the grown-ups were always in charge, and that even if there were tears before bedtime, there would be somebody to dry them. As of this week, it feels as if the grown-ups have quietly decamped, and we have now been left to dry our own tears and soothe our own bruises.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.