“Boris Ridiculous to Boris Dangerous”
Boris Johnson’s likely re-election as mayor of London tomorrow confounds those who thought that the intersection of comedy and politics was a left-wing thing. David Hayes has an excellent article on the mayoral campaign on the Australian Inside Story, which, incidentally, proves that good long-form journalism is not exclusively American. Here is a sample:
So familiar has the act become to the domestic audience that it is easy to forget how comically discordant it once seemed. Boris’s voice (posh baritone), his blond hair (strategically dishevelled), his dress (artfully rumpled), his bicycle (creatively deployed), his humour (a self-parodic melange of Boys’ Own quad-and-toasted-crumpets anachronism, imperial allusion and digressive wordplay) – the combination, when packaged in the figure of a Conservative MP of an unpopular opposition party, seemed out of kilter with the self-consciously thrustful, modernistic aura of the New Labour period.
But this was also a period when comedy was becoming a major cultural industry, and – for a media that also loves contrarians and the facade of difference – when “political satire” was filling the gap left by the end of ideology and the infirmity of political opposition. Boris was funny and clever; he stood out; he charmed; he got into scrapes, but even this seemed part of the Just William–style deal; and perhaps most effective of all, in a media-political culture becoming ever less serious, he reflected back to the audience a fashionable unseriousness, the sense that it – political argument, public life – was at heart all a jolly jape.
Thus, when Boris – then shadow higher education minister – announced his candidacy for mayor of London in July 2007, as his old university rival David Cameron was repositioning the Tories for their long march back to national power, the sideways move had an absurd aspect. Boris Johnson, the cod-gravitas comic turn who conjured a throwback image of born-to-rule monoculturalism, as governor of millions of hard-pressed, working-class, thrillingly diverse Londoners? It had to be another joke.
But the media, and certainly his left-wing opponents (very many, and what material he delivered them!), seem to have got Johnson wrong. Behind the charm offensive and the prolific journalism was always a formidable brain and a cold ambition. When the critics began to catch up in 2007–08, the sound of intellectual gears changing – from Boris ridiculous to Boris dangerous – was thunderous.
Still, they were wrong-footed. The left had loved, embraced and championed comedy’s colonisation of politics – most of it still does – but this was a step too far. The big mistake, it seemed, had been to characterise Johnson as above all a media figure (even if in the modern era every successful politician must be that), and to miss the possibility that the deceptively jocular exterior was also a mask. Could Boris even be more serious than the left? It was a question too fearful and disturbing to ask.
I voted for Boris last time, partly because I hoped that he would take on the Tube drivers’ union, but the decisive factor was a conviction that a third term for Ken would be a licence for cronyism. Boris hasn’t taken on Aslef: in fact its drivers have been bought off to keep them at work during the Olympics. But he hasn’t done anything terribly wrong, and Ken has failed to make the case for why we should have him back.
(Incidentally, I have no interest in Benita Thingy, the most unconvincing “outsider” since George W Bush. She is in favour of a third runway at Heathrow and she is not going to win. People who do not understand the Supplementary Vote system need to know that you have to use one of your votes to vote for Boris or Ken if you want your vote to be capable of influencing the outcome. As there is no candidate for whom I want to cast my first preference symbolically, I shall vote for Boris and not use my second vote.)Tagged in: boris johnson, london mayor
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