9 August 2018

Boris and the burka: a columnist with a deadline, not a sinister conspiracy


I am afraid we are going to have to talk about Boris Johnson again. On the internet, you see, everyone assumes everyone else has a plan. Twitter is no place for cock-ups, only for conspiracies.

The question asked when Talleyrand died — “What did he mean by that?” — is now asked of Johnson, as though this has become a subject that demands the deepest pondering. The former foreign secretary’s columns for the Daily Telegraph are hardly impenetrable texts, however, of the sort that might perplex even high-class minds. There is little need for Kremlinology when everything is in the open.

Sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct answer. Boris is a hack — I do not use the term in any kind of pejorative sense — whose copy generally arrives in the nick of time but only just. We are asked, however, to believe that his manoeuvres are guided by some kind of masterful, and long-term, plan. The first step, it seems, is to be rude about Muslim women who wear Islamic dress.

People seem to have forgotten what happened when Johnson actually did ask his colleagues to endorse his leadership aspirations. You may recall that it did not go well. Indeed it went to badly that it can scarcely be considered a “leadership campaign” at all.

Michael Gove was all set to support Johnson until he discovered that doing so risked putting Johnson into Downing Street at which point it became clear that supporting Johnson would be, to put it kindly, imprudent. Gove withdrew his support and Boris’s campaign collapsed like, well, like an inverted pyramid of piffle. Nothing Johnson has done since has offered any support to any suggestion Gove was mistaken.

His reign of gaffe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will not be remembered fondly by many. If Theresa May’s leadership has been less than wholly inspiring it has at least attempted to offer something like grown-up government in a childish age. Boris, it is worth recalling, was all set to make Andrea Leadsom Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So there is a choice to be made. Is it more probable that Boris & the burka is part of a carefully thought-out, dog-whistling, plot to undermine the prime minister and replace her with Boris Johnson or is it, alternatively, likely to be an instance of a newspaper columnist seeking to express himself in colourful terms of a kind that are entirely consistent with his entire back catalogue? A record which, if it is consulted and analysed, adds weight to the impression there is always less behind the Johnsonian curtain than people imagine.

I suggest the latter is a more plausible explanation. To which we may add that this is August and August is not the time for leadership shenanigans.

Doubtless Johnson — never under burdened by ego or ambition — still retains his prime ministerial hopes, but launching a culture war for which he would be a somewhat improbable figurehead does not seem the best way of advancing those ambitions. The constituency for this stuff in this country remains smaller than you think and your Twitter feed might suggest.

Besides, for all that Johnson insulted women who choose — of their own volition — to wear the veil it might be remembered that his position is that they should actually be entitled to wear it if they like.

This, those parsing his every word insist, just shows how devilishly cunning Johnson is. He dresses a comparatively liberal position in culture war cladding and we all know — don’t we? — what he was really saying and really meaning even if divining that interpretation requires us to jettison the actual meaning of the words he used. Gosh he’s good; blimey he’s clever.

Johnson, you see, is an ignorant charlatan and that just goes to show how he’s really a masterful political tactician. He knows what he’s doing even when he is busy demonstrating that he doesn’t.

Well, ok. Believe that if you will. Doing so plainly suits plenty of people, not least because there is a cadre of Remainer feeling that believes, with some reason, that Brexit was won on the back of a lie-strewn prospectus that tapped into and exploited many voters’ fears. It was a nativist revolt that should offend all good and true liberals.

But it does not follow that Johnson now sees himself as a British Victor Orban or that he intends to lead the kind of crusade that ends with Tommy Robinson (sic) as a special “Czar” for inter-community relations. A meeting with Steve Bannon does not mean Johnson is on the brink of leading an ethno-nationalist revolt.

It is true that Nigel Farage — who, as Jimmy Breslin said of Rudy Giuliani, always seems like a small man in search of a balcony — has dropped any pretence of being a “classical” liberal and instead embraced the paranoid, revolting, racist right. But then you feel that’s a kind of coming-out parade for Farage. And it is equally true that Ukip’s remnants, now searching for relevance following their immolation at the last election, believe that white, English, nationalism offers them their best, and perhaps only, future.

But it is not true that the British people, as a whole, hanker for such a future. The evidence, indeed, points the other way. Attitudes towards immigration, for instance, have softened markedly since the Brexit referendum. Like voters in every other country, voters want “control” but the appearance of that control may actually be more important than what is done with it.

It is true that British citizens do not consider the burka a garment of female emancipation — a view that some anti-Boris liberals seem to come perilously close to embracing — but it still seems possible to note that while, on the whole, we think it preferable that Islamic garb be limited to head scarves and the like, we also believe it would be heavy-handed and illiberal and preposterous for the government to start banning items of clothing.

And this view, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable one, is actually the view held by Boris Johnson.

All this confected outrage, them, reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s observation on the news that doctors had operated to remove a benign tumor from Randolph Churchill. It was, he wrote in his diary, “A typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it”. Something similar might be said of Boris and his back catalogue: it is typical of modern outrage to leap upon something that, by Johnsonian standards, is far from even being close to the most “offensive” thing he’s committed to print.

But then Boris cannot have it both ways either. He can be notional statesman or he can be an entertainer. His weakness for the latter weakens his case to be the former. When push comes to shove — and in politics it always does — Boris reaches for the joke.

Sometimes he means it and sometimes he doesn’t (the great thing about jokes is they provide a veneer of plausible deniability) but the bigger point is that he cannot function without them. Johnson proved thoroughly ill-equipped for life at the foreign office, partly because he couldn’t resist the temptations of frivolity, but Boris minus the jokes is just a bore. It’s the jokes that sustain him and the jokes that both prop up his aspirations for higher office and prove he’s ill-suited to it. If you felt like being grandiose, you’d say this is Johnson’s tragedy.

Even so, I do not think a column in the Daily Telegraph will spark a nationalist revolution. The British people may be a rum bunch of coves but there is little evidence they really thirst for such a thing. Joining the dots may satisfy diehard Remainers who love nothing more than bathing in confirmation bias but it is not obvious that kind of exercise does them, or anyone else, very much good. The constituency for politicians tempted to swank around the place in colourful shirts — or shorts, for that matter — remains limited.

And sometimes the simplest explanations are also the most cogent ones: Boris had a column to file so he wrote, at great pace, the first thing that popped into his mind. There is no plan and not having a plan is not, as Brexit should have taught us by now, any kind of a plan either

Alex Massie is a political commentator.