A pathological need to please is preventing the prime minister from breaking bad news.
First published in October 2020.
In his brilliant new book Who Enters Politics and Why?, academic James Weinberg provides possibly the most sophisticated analysis of why some people decide to stand for office and others don’t. His research discovers that when it comes to their basic human values, politicians really are “different”. Having spent the summer reading just about every biography, book, article and blog ever written about Boris Johnson, I’ve come to the conclusion that he may well be “very different” to your average and already quite “different” politician.
With COVID causing chaos and Christmas on the horizon, it could be that the prime minister’s biggest challenge has little to do with the common questions concerning his trustworthiness and competence – issues that, if we are honest, have dogged his career. It may have more to do with his unwillingness to disappoint. Johnson has always been a larger than life figure on the stage of political pantomime. Whether hanging from a zip wire, waving Cornish pasties or falling in rivers he is the ultimate entertainer.
To the annoyance of his opponents, the public appear to vote for him not on the basis of his policies but simply because he’s funny.
He knows this. His bouncing buffoonery is all part of a carefully calibrated act: the art of distraction, played by the clown who is actually the master. The problem is that politics is not always fun. One of the paradoxes of a healthy democracy is that politicians will on some occasions be forced to take unpopular decisions.
Need to please
The relationship between politics, popularity and populism is undoubtedly complex, but COVID-19 makes life exceptionally difficult for any politician whose ambition is only matched by their need to please. And this is the core psychological trait when it comes to understanding “Borisology” that has been almost completely overlooked.
It is almost impossible to read books like Andrew Gimson’s The Adventures of Boris Johnson or Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris and not come away with the distinctive feeling that Boris is in fact an incredibly vulnerable chap whose confidence and cheeky chutzpah veils a deeper and quite profound sense of insecurity.
Many people may find it surprising that Johnson could be someone who is curiously lost and lonely, but this is the pantomime pathos that needs to be acknowledged. “Merry England craves entertainment”, Gimson notes, “and Boris provides it”.
The flip-side is the ferocity with which those who understand the reality of politics seek to rip away Johnson’s mask. As Matthew Parris, himself a former Conservative MP, wrote in The Times:
“Somebody has to call a halt to the gathering pretence that if you’re sufficiently comical in politics you can laugh everything off … Incompetence is not funny. Policy vacuum is not funny. Administrative sloth is not funny. Breaking promises is not funny. A careless disregard for the truth is not funny. Creeping ambition in a jester’s hat is not funny.”
That was March 2016 and the focus of that diatribe is now prime minister. And he is the prime minister that faces the unpalatable task of cancelling Christmas – or, at the very least, tightly controlling it. This could be the issue that defines Boris’s premiership. Can the political puppy that needs to be loved play the Grinch who steals Christmas for the greater good of the public?
“Boris does not do bad news”, Purnell quotes one of his aides as suggesting when asked why Boris so often seems to disappear from the airwaves at the critical moment. He has a knack for ducking interviews when political boils need to be lanced.
Normal is not an option
Heading into the winter and with coronavirus cases rising, it’s ridiculous that Boris recently hinted that restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one place could be relaxed for Christmas. Asked if families of five would not be allowed to have their grandparents over for Christmas because it would break the “rule of six”, the prime Minister told ITV, “We’re not saying that at all … We’re doing everything we can to make sure Christmas for everybody is as normal as possible”.
While other ministers try and hold the line Johnson cannot resist the pressure to please.
Johnson has played this card before. Back in July he spoke of plans for “a significant return to normality” by Christmas. But with less than 80 days to go and the challenges of “containing and controlling” the virus becoming clearer, maybe the time has come for a slightly different message.
Christmas 2020 is not going to be normal. Even if a vaccine has been discovered or the virus is somehow subdued, the immediate economic impact on those that have lost their jobs or businesses will not disappear. Even Johnson’s admission that “it’s going to continue to be bumpy through to Christmas, it may even be bumpy beyond” fails to capture the scale of the challenge.
Politics is all about the careful management of public expectations but when it comes to COVID-19 and Christmas, Johnson may be well advised to dampen down rather than talk up the public’s festive thoughts about enjoying a “normal” Christmas.
Learning to under-promise but then over-supply would be a sensible strategy for Johnson to adopt but, then again, playing the Grinch is simply not his style.🔷
Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance, University of Sheffield. Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield.