Boris Johnson’s first major speech to his party since becoming Prime Minister will be remembered for two things.
The joke about the Speaker of the House, John Bercow being forced to eat kangaroo’s testicle.
And the joke about Labour Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn being blasted off into space like a “Communist cosmonaut.”
Boris Johnson is never better than when he is being Boris Johnson – forever looking for the comedic angle, always in search of a more memorably silly turn of phrase, never quite able to play at being the grown up in the room even though he’s now Prime Minister and that’s supposedly his job.
Before he became Prime Minister all the experts, including more than a few of his fellow Tories, insisted that these clownish instincts were precisely why he should never become Prime Minister.
I couldn’t disagree more. It’s his clownishness which makes him great.
The Spectator‘s Fraser Nelson has described his speech as “the first proper weapons-grade speech that he has given since standing for the job. It showcased his gift of communication, his ability to mobilise language to uplift and motivate.”
Yes, Boris does do that. No Prime Minister since Winston Churchill has had quite this rhetorical talent for using jokes and metaphors and a battery of other, classically trained, poshly-schooled oratorical tropes to get the nation onside in a time of crisis.
But what really makes Boris Johnson a leader for our times is his tendency towards the puerile. Or, if you wanted to be more generous, his incessant urge to undercut the solemnity of politics with a spot of welcome levity.
Donald Trump does this too. Lots of people get very cross when you make the Trump/Boris comparison. And, of course, they’re very different in style as you’d probably expect when one of them is a brash, New York property developer and the other is an Eton-and-Oxford-educated classicist. But in their different ways, both are very funny, both are the smartest guys in the room, and both have the knack of speaking past the usual channels that might obscure their message (the speech-writers, the flak-catchers, the policy wonks and, of course, the mainstream media) directly to the people they serve.
Both men in their different ways are populists. And only apologists for the corrupt, sclerotic, arrogant, entrenched, decaying old Establishment — aka the Deep State; aka the Swamp — would say that that is a bad thing, not a good thing.
There was an example of this yesterday when Boris found himself in embroiled in a nauseating display of virtue-signalling image management when one of his aides snatched from his hand a plastic coffee he was holding in order to make the optics look more eco-friendly.
Whatever the intention, it just made Boris look stage-managed and the Conservatives look like lying hypocrites.
But Boris redeemed the situation by gently mocking both it and himself.
I got my coffee in the end. pic.twitter.com/F5cDVZHhHA
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 1, 2019
This is where Boris differs from Trump, who doesn’t do self-deprecation. But then self-deprecation is a very English thing, not a very American thing, so that makes sense.
There’s no question, though, that what Boris is doing here is quintessentially Trumpian. He is exploiting social media with a skill and intelligence that no Prime Minister before him has managed. Theresa May, David Cameron and co used their social media for pompous formal announcements. Boris Johnson uses it to remind you that he’s on your side, he’s a card, and you can’t help liking him. Just like Trump does, only without Trump’s trademark snark.
I don’t think Boris is perfect.
I groaned when he started extolling the joys of wind turbines and solar panels and zero carbon by 2050, as though if you talk about stupid ideas in a Tiggerish, jolly-wheezish tone it will somehow magic away all the birds and bats that will end up sliced and diced, all the families driven into fuel poverty, all the firms put out of business because their energy costs are so high.
And I puked, obviously, during the bit where he waxed lyrical about Britain’s decrepit, Stalinesque health care system and its unenviable cancer survival rates, its bedblockers and its superfluity of overpaid management.
For all that, though, I think Boris is going to be a great Prime Minister – and just the tonic we need in these confused, dispiriting times.
I think Boris is going to carry Brexit to fruition, somehow, on a wave of optimism.
I think he’s going to lead, by example, just as Trump has done, in the war against po-faced political correctness, fake solemnity, obstruction posing as formality, and constraints on freedom of speech.
Boris is going to Make Britain Laugh Again.
And personally I think that’s great.