Why has a Boris Johnson government turned out to be so colossally boring? It might be somewhat unsettling for us to pay this problem a visit. Johnson is supposed to be a merry “showman” with a flair for clownish publicity stunts. This cliché promises that he is, in the words of the Telegraph, “the perfect antidote to Maybot fatigue” and that “in the current political climate, his approachable attitude and direct language now comes off as rather refreshing.” He is meant to hearten the nation by routinely bumbling about on a bicycle or a zip wire or a bulldozer or some other handy visual aid, with an amused Churchillian twinkle in his eye. There is meant to be a further subterranean level of entertainment too, in that he is always in the doghouse with his alienated women and fatherless children. So why have the first two months of Johnson’s premiership seemed so colourless?
January and February have been months of grey Johnson, distant Johnson, managerial Johnson, and even Xi-Jinping Johnson. These have been months of meagre fare as well for those on the Left who have made it their life’s work to collapse the jovial cliché and to expose Johnson as a sinisterly blinking pathological liar. The inconsistent representations of Johnson within the cartoons of the Guardian’s Steve Bell show how a normally able satirist has been here defeated by his model. Last year Bell’s Johnson was a kitsch Führer, who had tunefully sieg heiled and uttered such pronouncements as “ve fill fight zem on ze peaches und in die lebensraums.” This year he is reduced to an absentee ruler who is permanently wallowing on a beach and in touch with his government only through Skype. I doubt that the real Hitler had ever once darkened a beach.
Bell is often open with his fans about the place of trial and error in the evolution of his creations. I can remember him despairing in one interview about how he could never manage to satisfactorily draw Neil Kinnock. His Johnson has bumcheeks for a face, which is, on the face of it, just uncomplicated abuse, but it also confesses to an inability to locate a durable expression for Johnson. For such a notorious “showman” and entertainer, Johnson is in fact peculiarly self-effacing.
Johnson’s clowning was always as weirdly energyless as his decades-long, faltering creep towards power. He had flowed as a kind of inexorable treacle in the direction of Downing Street, with only the vaguest notions and most residual enthusiasm for what to do with its power once he had procured it. The last two months have been so boring in part because his aimless vows “to deliver” remain unattached to any futuristic or even especially concrete political project. His only significant tweak to the life of the country has been to guarantee that High Speed 2, a pre-existing commitment, won’t be cancelled.
The forthcoming budget will reportedly release over a trillion pounds worth of spending. No headline about any particular eye-catching project is yet to sprout from this cash figure, which is all much of a muchness with the largely noncommittal manifesto that Johnson had gone into the election with. It appears that most of the unleashed trillion will go towards topping up the exhausted hospitals and anaemic broadband, or the state institutions and services that were depleted under austerity. In one unfortunate concurrence of events, Johnson’s desperation to recruit 20,000 new police officers was recently undermined by a high court ruling that Humberside police had harassed a random member of the public for entirely non-criminal behaviour on Twitter. It is hard to celebrate over a billion pounds worth of spending on police recruitment if the consequent officers are then going to become merely an armed social-media moderation service.
Still, what are you to do if you are leading a party of government with the word “Conservative” in its title that is anxious to maintain that it is bold, visionary, ambitious and all of the qualities that are more properly native to the Left? The answer is to immediately insist that you are about to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The bridge would potentially link Northern Ireland’s Larne to Scotland’s Portpatrick. In doing so, it would daringly traverse undersea trenches that are filled with leftover WW2 munitions. It would be sane to budget about £20 billion for this structure, with such a vast expenditure being incongruously bestowed on two of the most provincial and underpopulated regions of the UK (imagine the potential implications of the same figure being pumped into clinical trials for stem cell technologies). In other words, if you come to this bridge with various left-leaning suspicions of a Conservative government, you leave it having been reconnected with your own inner Conservative. If you had previously harboured any doubts about whether Johnson could be trusted to finance public spending, you are now safely appalled by his flagrant profligacy and irresponsibility.
This bridge ruse is far from being boring but it is also clear that it is just a strategic fantasy to compensate for the lack of any exciting real-world government policies. Yet the boredom of Boris Johnson is for me so ominous because it in itself reneges on the promise of the Brexit referendum. For me, Brexit had entailed making the UK’s politics more dynamic and democratic, not more boring.
Supporters of the EU had wanted to privatise essentially all but the most frivolous layer of decision-making, in contracting political decisions out to unaccountable bureaucrats and the faraway privacy of “the top table.” Last year, politics in the UK had slipped out of its keynote managerial hush and it was suddenly deafening. There was a hung parliament, marches, protests, bitter disagreement and all the “poison” of an actual public debate. With the slogan “Get Brexit Done,” however, Johnson was pledging to send politics back to sleep again. He indeed wished to unite the country, appealing to both fatigued Brexiteers and those Remainers who despised Brexit because it had symbolised, for them, the perils of a politically revitalised working class.
The trillion pounds of indiscriminate public spending and that totemic bridge might be evidence that the centre ground has shifted or that Blairism is no longer quite its old self. We will see. I can picture a lot of the trillion pounds being misplaced and its downward chop going inevitably askew. Behind the flashes of colour, the evasive tomfoolery and the wistful pining for bridges, Johnson’s true heart of darkness is perhaps that he is simply boring. This might be merely a fear on my part, rather than yet a decided certainty, but it is wise to remain conscious of what is at stake in Johnson’s apparent unadventurousness.
The UK is about to embark on an odyssey of borrowing and to place the weight of the state on taxpayers who will at some point withdraw their consent and their electoral mandate. There might be only a limited window available for unrestricted state spending, with the correction incidentally coming when a post-Corbyn Labour party is belatedly trying to outflank Johnson from the Left. With these being thus the designated years for spending, it is important for progressives to prioritise a focused investment in science, technology, and medical research. But the discomfort for Johnson is that the more ambitious that he is with the state’s revenues, the less that they will benefit the regions and towns that he has identified as his powerbase.
State spending should break out of its habitual cycles of wastage and cuts. It should instead take the form of an imaginative visualising of the future of the country, along with a flinty expectation of returns from the state’s investment in education and technology. The scrutiny of Johnson’s spending must begin at once. Labour is presently off on another great search to discover what it is exactly. Its rounds of leadership debates would do better to ask difficult, or at least realistic questions about whether Johnson’s choices will really take us the furthest forward.