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Donkin's World: Seeking The Bubble Reputation

"Here in the UK we can be thankful that charisma and cunning alone can never be prized enough to propel anyone to high political office. Or can we?...''

Journalist Richard Donkin takes a keen-eyed look at the blond-haired mop-top who aspires to be the British Prime Minister.

In Italy recently I was chatting with a former financial journalist in a coffee bar-cum-bookshop. Among the political titles, he pointed to photographs of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former Prime Minister.

Why? How? He shook his head. “I know, I know, it seems incredible but people warm to him. He’s made the country a laughing stock abroad and yet he still gets votes. We’ll have to go to the polls again now and who knows?”

The billionaire, who defined bunga bunga capitalism in his own country, remains one of the world’s most notorious business figures and, in spite of a conviction for tax evasion and fraud, a remarkable political survivor.

You would need to go back to Benito Mussolini to find a more charismatic figure at the helm of this beautiful country. But charisma was everything in the 1930s. Whole nations were hoodwinked by despots who presented themselves as patriarchs and heroes.

Here in the UK we can be thankful that charisma and cunning alone can never be prized enough to propel anyone to high political office. Or can we?

BBC 2’s hour-long documentary on Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, this week, did not pull its punches, laying bare the bones of his private life just as starkly as those unearthed in Leicester last year and later established to be the skeleton of Richard III.

Prime suspect

Richard is one of history's most vilified monarchs yet the discovery of his remains has been accompanied by a transformational revisionism highlighting the good things that happened during his reign.

The king, whose life was blackened by the Tudor dynasty that usurped him, achieved some notable reforms – introducing the right to bail in to the justice system, legal representation for the poor, and removing restrictions on the sale and printing of books. He remains, however, the prime suspect in the murder of the princes in the tower.

But, never mind the bad things, it’s the good things about Richard we celebrate now. And this seems to be the case with Boris Johnson whose dirty washing was aired, then crumpled away during a documentary made with the full co-operation of Johnson and his formidable clan. All publicity is good publicity.

What better way to prepare yourself for higher office than to make the case of mea culpa so that the electorate can be in no doubt exactly who it is voting for, eyes wide shut.

Teddybear

In Johnson’s case, as in Berlusconi’s – as Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye pointed out in the documentary – the charisma and teddybear-like vulnerability of the man appears to outweigh his past misdeeds.

This is good news for Johnson who, whatever he says to the contrary, appears to be manoeuvering for a shot at the Tory party leadership should the embattled David Cameron’s coalition administration begin to disintegrate.

In a characteristically casual remark he spoke of picking up and running with the rugby ball should it come loose from the back of the scrum. Nothing coded about that.

Neither the documentary nor a hard-hitting interview by Eddie Mair, who called Johnson a “nasty piece of work”, dwelt in any depth on Johnson’s failings as a politician. But when the convicted fraudster, Conrad Black, calls him sly, and when a former editor Max Hastings, singles out his inability to concentrate on detail, the warnings should be heeded.

Boris Johnson is shuffling and bumbling (the stage act) ever nearer Britain’s most powerful office, a post, that his sister, Rachel, says is not even the culmination of his towering ambition. Even a commentator as astute as Hislop is no longer willing to bet against him succeeding.

So would a Johnson administration be disastrous for Britain? Historically, the politician I think he resembles most closely is Winston Churchill, widely recognised as our greatest Briton.

Finest hour

Who could forget that Churchill gave Britain its finest hour when the nation was on its knees in 1940? His was the backbone that stiffened just as others were quivering towards capitulation. You can forgive a man a lot for that, and Churchill does seem to have been forgiven – everywhere but in the Welsh valleys – in spite of some limp peacetime policies and damaging wartime strategies, not least the second fronts in Gallipoli and later in Italy.

Johnson, like Churchill, is an accomplished orator. And while Churchill certainly had a sharp sense of humour, Johnson’s is more genial and disarming. I confess to being a fan of his Daily Telegraph columns even though I rarely subscribe to his views. I know some of his family and they’re good company as long as you don’t mind them looking over your shoulder in conversation.

But Prime Minister? Please, no. The House of Commons is the national debating chamber, not the set of Big Brother. In a world where the medium is indeed the message, fame conquers all and Johnson is famous, internationally; probably as famous as the Prime Minister now after the Olympic games.

Baring his Bottom

I fear the only man capable of stopping Johnson is Johnson himself. To borrow his common room language, will he man up and do the decent thing? A Shakespearean figure, man of many parts, his best and most entertaining role so far has been that of Bottom. No-one would begrudge him the part of Falstaff in later life. Prince Hal, he is not.

Neither should he aspire to Hamlet, Lear or Macbeth. That way lies a comedy of errors in leadership and potential tragedy for a nation seduced by this Bertie Wooster of politics. Whoever has their finger on the nuclear trigger should never have a reputation for shooting from the hip. Better that Johnson remains the artful jester, star of party conferences, scourge of ‘elf and safety, championing common sense, the Route Master and bicycles for all. I’d drink to that.

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