Jonathan Lis explains why Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in leading the UK in any meaningful way is the role he always wanted – and how the public and media are playing along
In the end, Boris Johnson emerged from his holiday not to tackle the ‘A’ Level results crisis – but to joke about it.
On a visit to Castle Rock School in Coalville on Wednesday, the Prime Minister declared: “I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm, and I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.”
A “mutant algorithm” is an appropriate phrase. For it describes not the scandal of the exam results but Johnson himself.
His entire career has been one of mutation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a hang-and-flog-em social conservative, crusading against single mothers, gay people and anti-imperialists. In the late 2000s and 2010s, he was London’s own lovable rogue, advertising conservatism with a liberal wink on its face. And, since 2016, he has been the scorched-earth demagogue prioritising Brexit and power over the country’s democratic institutions.
Like an algorithm, Johnson does not simply act at random. He does not ‘go rogue’. The algorithm works like any computer game: it performs the functions someone has programmed for it. It may seem out of control, but it is in fact doing exactly what it has set out to do.
Of course, Johnson did not take ownership of the exam results debacle. Of course, he blamed a disembodied computer glitch instead of a deliberate and conscious piece of policy-making supervised directly by him. Just as love means never having to say you’re sorry, Johnson’s self-love means never having to take responsibility. Everything is the fault of someone or something else: voters, foreigners or computers.
Masking An Empathy Gap
Life under Johnson can feel like an out-of-body experience. Everything you see and hear is up for question. What you remember happening did not happen. What you know the Prime Minister did was done by someone else or not done at all.
It is pure gaslighting – but it is not the whole story. It is only part of the game and only one of the ways in which it is played.
The game’s first element is language. Virtually everything Johnson says, formally and informally, follows the same pattern. Take his speech in June, from Downing Street, about a prospective trade deal with Australia. “How long can the British people be deprived of the opportunity to have Arnott’s Tim Tams at a reasonable price?” he bellowed.
Johnson wanted to become Prime Minister but never to be Prime Minister… For him, power is about breaking precedent, cheating the system, scoring the con to end all cons.
It was vintage Johnson: the grand discussion of something small and trivial to reassure people they were in on a big joke. Wartime Churchillian rhetoric to describe biscuits. No other Prime Minister has or would speak in this way. Others would consider it infantile, demeaning, the wrong register at the wrong time. Johnson knows that, and the knowledge of his own exceptionalism is what excites him. But it goes even deeper.
Johnson doesn’t know or care if it is the wrong register for a British Prime Minister or for Britain’s interests. It is the right register for him. The show may entertain other people, but he actually performs it to entertain himself.
What about when the subject matter is more emotional or serious? The baroque language may get diluted but the style almost never does.
Investigating historic child abuse was “spaffing money up the wall”. Procuring ventilators was (in a private meeting) “Operation Last Gasp”. He informed the nation at a press conference in March that we would “get this virus done”.
It is at one and the same time the insecure panic of someone who doesn’t know how to empathise, and the public school confidence of someone who knows he doesn’t need to. He is a man who, confronted with genuine crisis or grief, lacks the tone or depth to respond with anything other than jokes, and boasts the unshakeable confidence he will charm the discomfort away. Because he cannot identify with other people’s emotions he chooses not to try.
But language is what fronts policy, and that too is the game. Its ultimate manifestation has been Brexit, an amusement to accommodate Johnson’s personal interest and whim. In some ways it has quite explicitly functioned as a game, guided not by concrete improvements to anyone’s life, but by a series of arbitrary deadlines: 31 October for Brexit last year, 31 December for the deal this year. Under Johnson, this is not a serious project to change politics, but a gameshow challenge to attempt something complicated within a strict time-frame.
Playing Along with Johnson’s Game
Here, then, is the difference between an exam and real life. In real life, tackling something important, you will take as much time as you need. If it looks nearly impossible, you will seek to extend the time. In an exam – an ‘A’ Level, say – you have three hours and then have to submit, ready or not.
For Johnson, Brexit is less important than an exam. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. He will blame someone else and it was fun to try.
And so the key to this game is failure. Johnson does not set out to fail per se. Rather, failure is just another route to winning. He fails to prove the failure won’t hurt him. He sabotages things because he can.
This thinking sounds perverse because it is. It must be understood within the framework, not of governing, but of a game with one necessary victor. Success, stability and predictability are boring. Why not see how far you can push the people who support you? If you can still win with the most danger, the most excitement, inflicting the most damage, why not try?
It is here that the strategies behind Johnson’s premiership begin to make sense.
Of course, he would unlawfully prorogue Parliament. Of course,- he would rewrite the lockdown rules to exonerate his chief advisor Dominic Cummings. Of course, he would lie to people’s faces about care homes, testing and personal protective equipment.
Everything must be outrageous, shocking and unprecedented. Everything must outdo every predecessor. This is governing as teleology: it is not the premiership that is important, but how he feels at the end of it. It doesn’t matter that it would be easier not to play this game. It doesn’t matter that more people might appreciate him if he at least tried to succeed. This is not the point of the exercise. None of the failure matters because he is simply working to a different metric of success.
Johnson wanted to become Prime Minister but never to be Prime Minister – at least, not in the formal sense of doing what leaders are appointed to do. For him, power is about breaking precedent, cheating the system, scoring the con to end all cons.
The thrill of failure is just that: a thrill. It is like blagging yourself someone else’s Lamborghini and then crashing it so you can blag that away too. When you are so purely solipsistic that only the self exists, you are capable of centring, considering, governing only for yourself. Cronies cling to you for the scraps of self-interest they can pluck in your wake. This is corruption at its most decadent: botching a crisis or destroying a national infrastructure not for political gain, nor even for financial reward, but ultimately for pure personal sport.
Boris Johnson is the anti-Prime Minister. He isn’t there when his country needs him to be. It’s not just that being absent during the exams crisis allowed a human shield such as the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to take the flak. It’s not even that absence is a political strategy or asset, although it is also that. It’s that he doesn’t know how to be there. He isn’t on the job in any meaningful way even when he shows up to the meetings. He’s there to do a different job: not to be Prime Minister but to be Boris Johnson.
It’s not that Johnson wants to harm people – it’s that the concept of harming them barely enters his imagination.
The notion of caring in any meaningful way for people who aren’t him, in a way that doesn’t relate to him, is alien. The public knows this. When, during the 2019 General Election campaign, Johnson was asked about honesty or empathy, people jeered and laughed: this is a game we are playing too. When Johnson wants to parade a veneer of cleverness, the media lets him parade it. When he seeks the indulgence of voters’ approval, voters indulge him.
Despite all its levels and dimensions, this game has just one rule and allows for just one winner. It dictates that the United Kingdom, and its people, currently exist for one purpose and one purpose alone – and that is to serve the ego of Boris Johnson. This is the mutant algorithm. The rest is noise.