Death comes for the Entertainer in Downing Street

by Bernard Keane
Boris Johnson's own party is now working out that he can't govern and has no grasp of what's important.

“I’m dead behind these eyes. I’m dead, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there”

— Archie Rice, John Osborne’s The Entertainer, 1957

What happens if you put an entertainer into political office? Politics, after all, is famously showbusiness for ugly people.

Ronald Reagan never stopped being a performer, transforming effortlessly from left-wing actor to safe wartime Hollywood star to conservative corporate shill to governor and then, in his greatest performance other than in The Killers, president for corporate America and the military-industrial complex.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, literally actor-turned-politician, cannily co-opted his acting and presentational instincts into a legitimate political wartime leadership style. Donald Trump, the demon spawn of the satanic (and not in a good way) genre of reality television, exploited his showbusiness skills in service of a nihilistic agenda of destruction and rage.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who has never been anything more than an entertainer. A serial fabulist in life, his “journalism” was a litany of invented stories, his “literature” a glib facsimile of popular history and biography, and his carefully honed television brand that of a self-deprecating, bumbling, classically educated clown — a stupid person’s idea of a smart person — that he rode all the way to No. 10. Johnson has always been about entertainment, not leadership — thus his until recently successful insistence that he never be subjected to the same standards around truth and competence that other politicians are. He’s just pretending to be PM — you’re not taking him seriously, surely?

Like Osborne’s Archie Rice, that second-rate vaudevillian symbol of British post-imperial decline, there’s nothing behind the eyes of Johnson. No substance, no agenda, no goals. On this he’s closer to Scott Morrison, another leader from the entertainment industry (marketing — aka show business for sociologists), than Donald Trump. Trump incarnates a destructive white male rage against the fact that it’s no longer 1861. Johnson incarnates a chap who thinks it’d be a jolly wheeze to be Prime Minister as long as it doesn’t stop him from writing his middlebrow White Man’s Guide to England books (as Dominic Cummings revealed, Johnson complained about having to do his job, like visiting flood victims, when he just wanted to sit at No. 10 writing his Shakespeare book).

This makes the urgings by right-wing UK media outlets to “let Boris be Boris” — which have cropped up routinely during various crises in his prime ministership — particularly silly. There is no inner Boris being stifled by bureaucrats/advisers/the Tory party, because there is no inner Boris. What you see is all you’re ever going to get.

As Australians discovered with Morrison, entertainers make poor leaders. The lack of substance and the obsession with image leads to governing by announcement and media release, while the actual skills required to govern competently are left to wither. And the lack of substance leads to an inability to understand what is genuinely important. The spark for the latest crisis to beset Johnson — the resignations of his chancellor and health minister, along with a slew of parliamentary secretaries and party officials — lies in his mishandling of the scandal of his now-former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, who is accused by a number of men of being a long-term serial sexual harasser and predator.

Johnson insisted he knew nothing about allegations against Pincher, only for the former head of the Foreign Office to emerge and explain that Johnson was personally briefed about Pincher’s assaults while in the Foreign Office. Just as inevitably, Johnson is now said to have referred to Pincher with the phrase “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”

Johnson’s scandals are now ossifying into ritual: the initial insistence of innocence, the exposure of the lie, the attempts to explain away the lie, the revelation of some grubby or glib dismissal of the issue by a man unable to determine whether writing his lightweight addition to the Shakespeare library or visiting flood victims is more important.

With a solid chunk of his backbench having already pushed for his departure, and a continuing stream of ministerial defections, it’s clear even his own party understands that Johnson is an agenda-less disaster who will drag the party to defeat in 2024. A man who is dead behind the eyes will soon be dead politically. Whether the era of the entertainer is over is another matter, however.