The Tears of a Clown

Boris Johnson’s unseriousness may have finally caught up to him.

A silhouette of Boris Johnson
Stegan Rousseau / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

We were in the white room in 10 Downing Street, and Boris Johnson was joking around with the photographer who was taking his portrait. “You’re like the kind-of taxidermist in The Godfather,” Johnson said, laughing. “Do you remember? The funeral—the undertaker?” He then launched into his Don Corleone impression. “‘Buona sera, buona sera, see what a massacre they’ve made of my son.’ Do you remember? ‘Use all your arts, use all your arts.’”

The scene was almost perfectly Johnsonian, capturing the British prime minister’s instinct to amuse and distract, to pull a veil of humor over anything remotely serious. Watching him can be like watching a child, in this instance a child shuffling uncomfortably having his picture taken, desperate to grin and ruffle his hair, to mock and undermine, to play up to the inherent absurdity of the situation.

Fast-forward barely six months from that moment of levity and Johnson is going to need quite some skills to cover up his massacre of his own premiership, which now lies riddled with the bullets of his own failings.

As I write this, Johnson has survived to fight another week of turmoil—barely. All last week disaffected Conservative members of Parliament plotted to oust him, without quite making their move. One backbench lawmaker was so appalled at Johnson’s behavior that he switched sides in the House of Commons to join the Labour Party; another stood up in the chamber to tell him, “In the name of God, go.” And yet Johnson hung on, waiting for a report to be published this week that will formally lay out exactly what went on inside 10 Downing Street while the rest of the United Kingdom was in various states of lockdown. All the while, his poll ratings—and that of his party—plummeted.

Nothing in British political history has been quite like Johnson’s self-immolation. The collapse in his public estimation has nothing to do with opposition to a particular policy or some major government failure. Nor is it because of an electoral defeat—Johnson is the most electorally successful Conservative leader in 30 years. The center of British politics has not shifted since he captured it in 2019. Brexit is not in question. Even his handling of the Omicron wave of the coronavirus pandemic has been relatively uncontroversial. Simply put, Johnson is being condemned because of a perceived moral failing. The public has looked at the revelations about his behavior during earlier periods of the pandemic and, it seems, judged that he is unfit for office. Johnson is left raging at the dying of his political light, powerless to do anything about it other than to pray for time in the hope that something will come up. And perhaps something will.

Just as we have never had a prime-ministerial collapse like this, never have we had a prime minister like Johnson—at least not since 1945. Johnson is not merely stylistically different from those who came before him, but substantially different. At root, each of Britain’s postwar prime ministers was a serious creature who believed in the seriousness of the job and the seriousness of life. Some were more serious than others, but each held on to their own notion of morality, honor, and rectitude.

Johnson is different. As with Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister from 1874 to 1880 and one of Johnson’s great heroes, we glimpse in the current prime minister a “mocking observer surveying with skeptical amusement the very stage upon which he himself [plays],” as the late professor Robert Blake put it in his biography of Disraeli. When Johnson looks at the world, he sees not its seriousness but its inherent absurdity. As the philosopher John Gray told me, “His sense is of the passing show—that what people are bothered about now is ephemeral and that something new will come along.” You sense with Johnson his belief that we are little more than froth on the wave of history, within which only a few bright flecks will ever be seen by future oceanographers. He, of course, hopes to be one of those.

This outlook on life is what gives Johnson his levity, the seemingly Houdini-like ability to escape the petty scandals that might have done for other politicians. And yet, this outlook also causes him to end up in so many scandals in the first place. If life is a passing show, and an absurdist one at that, what does it really matter if someone gets upset about something? What does it matter if he and his staff let off a bit of steam in lockdown, or that French President Emmanuel Macron is outraged by his behavior? It is this outlook that means Johnson can be flippant, but also bold—sometimes at the same time. He can strike deals over Brexit because he can always handle the problems later, negotiate an arms deal behind Macron’s back, and, as we are seeing now, pursue the most hawkish policy toward Russia of any European state. But he can also attend a garden party in his back garden while telling the country such gatherings are banned.

Johnson has written that the central struggle of civilization is that which is waged between “the powerful men and women who want their deeds recorded, and the literary figures who are able to record them.” Life’s goal, in other words, is not avoiding temptation before some kind of final judgment, but achieving the “deathless fame” of doing great things and having them recorded. Those who pretend otherwise—or even believe otherwise—are, in Johnson’s mind, necessarily ridiculous. And therefore those who get themselves worked up by an extramarital affair there, or a scandal here, fail to grasp the precious, fleeting nature of life that must be grabbed and lived before it is snuffed out. This is not, principally, a moral outlook.

A friend of mine, the historian Tom Holland, who has written a book about the history of Christianity and its moral legacy, told me Johnson’s outlook on life helped explain why he is viscerally detested by so many people and why this current scandal—so small in so many ways—is mortally dangerous for him. “He offends people on a deeply spiritual level,” Holland said. “Even with [Margaret] Thatcher, though you might vehemently disagree with her, you could see she was acting with her own stern morality. Boris just doesn’t seem to have it at all.”

In a column published in The Sunday Times last weekend, causing Johnson fresh misery, the journalist Dominic Lawson recorded a conversation he’d had with someone who had known the prime minister for years. When Lawson asked what could have made Johnson take such a lax approach during the lockdown, this person replied: “It’s because deep down he obviously thought the regulations were ridiculous—so why should he observe them?”

Johnson has since been appalled to discover that most of the rest of the country did not think the rules were ridiculous but felt a genuine moral obligation to follow them, often to the point of extraordinary personal cost. They did so because they felt it was the right thing to do.

Johnson’s problem is that these people far outnumber himself and the other mocking observers.

There’s a striking caricature physicality about Johnson. When he is buoyant, it is obvious: He puffs out his chest and thrusts his fist in the air—after a good call with a foreign leader, for example. But when he is down, it is also clear: His energy levels sap and he can look mournful and alone. His pale eyes, often squinting in mirth or faux suspicion, are—on closer inspection—actually quite sad-looking, drooping at the edges with what the journalist Andrew Sullivan spotted as “a hint of pathos.” Last week, reacting in television interviews like a scolded child, he literally lowered his head in shame, teary-eyed. This is the “needy” figure that those close to Theresa May used to talk about.

I was with Johnson in Belfast when I caught a glimpse of this mournful side of his character. We were at a 3-D-printing factory that produced life-size models of human organs and skeletons. As he moved around the room he was presented with a disfigured skeleton of a small child: “It’s like Richard III,” Johnson said, automatically. “Oh dear, oh dear. It’s terrible, poor little baby, poor little child.” As he wandered on, he was handed a set of lungs, which the person showing him around said were infected with the coronavirus, just like Johnson’s had been. “The yellow gunk is the COVID cloud?” Johnson asked, staring at them before turning them over in his hand. “God, that is extraordinary.”

There was something strange about watching a prime minister come face-to-face with his own mortality and seeming, for a split second at least, to contemplate the magnitude of it. Perhaps it was all for show. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former aide and now sworn enemy, has said that most people mistakenly believe Johnson took COVID seriously, because he almost died from it. In fact, Cummings points out, Johnson hated imposing lockdown restrictions even after coming out of intensive care. At one point I remember an aide telling me of Johnson’s pride in being told that an early antigen test of his had “saturated the assay” with antibodies—as if it were a virility test.

When I last spoke with Johnson last year, I tried to needle out of him this deeper cynical side to his character, but he just swerved and evaded as usual. Yet I think it is the key to understanding him. Johnson has a romantic yearning to be a great figure, or at least to achieve “deathless fame,” but this is born from his cynical disbelief that any of it is of much importance.

Here, I think, we see the inner Johnson: the loner, prone to melancholy, who jokes his way through life, poking fun at anything and anyone who presumes to take it seriously. “His carapace of charm prevents people from understanding what’s beneath,” Gray told me. He sees not only the ephemeral nature of life, but also its intractability. And this explains the jokes. “Humor,” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle.” Or, as Monty Python put it:

Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death's a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughin’ as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Johnson is almost physically incapable of resisting a joke. I cannot recall a single time when I watched him approach a group of people without some kind of joke or grunt or comedic movement. Sitting down for a photo opportunity with a beer in Wolverhampton, he raised his glass to toast the latest move out of a particular set of COVID restrictions. “Here’s to step two,” he declared. “I think step two is one of the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous.” Those with him shifted awkwardly as he took a big gulp of his drink.

I remember, another time, trying to prod him into talking about political positioning by asking whether he had read Tony Blair’s splashy piece in The New Statesman, which declared that the Labour Party would die without total change. “I didn’t,” Johnson said. “I looked at it. I saw how big it was. I beheld it. When you’re a journalist, people come up to you and say, ‘I saw your piece,’ and that means they didn’t read it. ‘I looked at your piece’ means they tried to read it. ‘I read your piece’ means they read the first paragraph.” Here Johnson is mocking everyone: Blair for taking things so seriously; me for taking Blair so seriously.

He loathes those who lecture people and impose their own morality on others. While he has ridiculed Donald Trump openly, and those close to him have described him as “mad,” there’s clearly a part of Johnson who enjoys the madness. Johnson has similarly hailed Silvio Berlusconi as a force of nature. In his book on Rome he gives a special mention to Theodora, the wife of Emperor Justinian, the fallen woman who became an adored empress. According to Johnson, ”She was a kind of Eva Peron. It is as though Paris Hilton had married the President of the United States.” Johnson evidently thinks this marvelous.

All this lack of seriousness worked brilliantly for Johnson during Brexit and his rise to power, when the serious people had become a joke, fighting among themselves to the point of national stasis and humiliation. Here was a man who poked fun at the seriousness of them all. He was a weapon deployed by the Conservative Party to retain power, and a weapon deployed by voters to regain their power over events. He was an agent of chaos meant to put an end to the chaos. He is now, once again, just an agent of chaos.

During our various conversations last year, Johnson told me that his view of politics was that everything had to start from the perspective of the individual punter. In his view, for too long ordinary voters had too often been treated with disdain, their emotions and instincts deemed irrelevant.

This was, indeed, his great political strength: his ability to reflect the aspirations of ordinary England. He was Good Old Boris who sorted Brexit, didn’t talk down to them, socked it to the Europeans, and promised to take back control. Yet that old world has gone, and now Johnson finds that it is he who has treated individual punters with disdain and he who has treated their emotions and instincts as irrelevant. Suddenly it is the moralizing Puritans whom he so hates who are in line with the public, which supported his lockdowns, wanted more draconian measures to deal with rule breakers, gave him the benefit of the doubt when deaths soared, and cheered him when the vaccine rollout exceeded expectations.

Like a Falstaff to the public’s Henry V, Johnson is being cast aside like a jester who was once fun but is not fit for the seriousness of the job at hand. Johnson today is begging to be readmitted into the public’s affection, using all the techniques he has deployed throughout his life when he has found himself in trouble. And the warning to his enemies who are close to seeing him off is that he is remarkably good at being forgiven.

Johnson, unlike Trump, has no qualms about showing weakness—giving the full labrador-caught-eating-the-dinner act, whimpering for forgiveness, head bowed, eyes drooping, before rolling onto his back for a belly rub. A quick look at Johnson’s career suggests that forgiveness remains possible. During my reporting for a profile of him that I wrote last year, I was surprised when he said in passing that one of his ex-wives had recommended a novel for him to read. He had somehow maintained a friendly relationship with her.

Throughout his life he has stumbled upward through every failure: losing his first bid to be president of the Oxford Union only to win on his second; being sacked from The Times only to land at The Daily Telegraph; being sacked as a member of the Conservative shadow cabinet only to become the party’s London mayoral candidate; withdrawing from the Conservative leadership election only to win it three years later; winning the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years only to throw it all away. Is there to be a final comeback, or is this his final act?

Over the past week, even as he was hit with more bullets from his rivals, Johnson grabbed hold of the only piece of armor that might save him: time. Francesco Guicciardini wrote, “He who has time has life” because “delay brings infinite opportunities that at first could not be known or hoped for.” This is all Johnson now has. He is praying that the longer he can hold on, the greater the chance that something, anything, will turn up to change the story.

Yet Johnson’s problem will remain that the public has made a judgment about his morality, not about a particular policy that can be changed. And if his broad policy thrust remains popular but he isn’t, then he’s easy to replace.

Perhaps, as Johnson no doubt believes, the British public really is in one of its periodic fits of morality and, given time, its fury will dissipate and other emotions will prevail. But Johnson is now at the whim of events and a public whose morality—at least in grave moments such as these—he does not share. As he himself once said: “Whatever happens, let no one say that this is a struggle for the Tory party’s soul. There is no such thing. The Tory party is a vast organism animated by a few vague common principles such as tradition and love of country, and above all by the pursuit and retention of power.”

And therein lies the danger for Johnson, as he is well aware. COVID-19 has already given Johnson one serious brush with mortality, which he survived to be able to carry on with the joke. Now his political mortality hangs by a thread because of this very lack of seriousness. But, as he already knows, whatever happens, the joke is on him in the end, so maybe none of it matters anyway. At least plenty of us are writing it all down for the history books.