How does he get away with it ?
This is the script of a piece I wrote for RTE’s ‘World Report”
As a rule, I’m not that keen on the English seaside and loathe the rain –as a rule but the rules have after all changed and after a year of holiday less lockdown I’ve been revelling in both ----soaked to the skin, plodding round a Cornish beach, the distant memory of a pint and the pub about to become a glorious reality once again. And in a heaving wave and wind whipped harbourside town it seems hundreds of others have the same idea --- saturated in wet weather gear parading the Prominade as joyously as if the sun beat down. And as I drip happily, I reflect we are here because of a decision of the Westminster Government. Reporting on politics, British European, American has been my job for more than thirty years ---but --- never in my lifetime has what politicians do mattered so intimately to every one of us.
And just as my short break ends, one of the main architects of Brexit has shoved a spotlight up the body politic.
After Dominic Cummings evidence,
there’s now a central question at the heart of British politics – not the intriguing detail ..like was there ever really a plan for herd immunity – nor the high falutin’ such as – what is the relationship between English identity and the Union ----no, far more basic than that. It is “How on earth does Boris get away with it?”
This question is not new but the Prime Minister’s shirt sleeved Svengali,----- former ex retired, sacked, or resigned Svengali, make your own choice --- Dominic Cummings has put this question up in flashing neon lights, draped in steel tipped poison laced tinsel, with clanging bells and shrill whistles. The PM’s once indispensable right hand man appeared before a committee of MPs in the House of Commons and blew the wheels off his old boss.. It is rather like Jeeves contemptuously spilling the beans on Bertie Wooster – maintaining the jolly japes at the pink pussy club were in fact horrid and harmful– the impression he tried to give --- was exactly that of the long suffering, efficient servant constantly failing to save his hapless master. Except it comes not with a chuckle but the heavy accusation that serial bungling cost many, many lives.
In case you missed it, he said it was ‘crackers’ Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, thousands of people would have made a better leader, the PM veered all over the place like a wonky shopping trolley and was fundamentally unserious.
Now I’m no naïve ingenue, shocked that those involved in high level politics don’t love each other – I’m long enough in the tooth to have been in the press gallery -gasping with shock when another right hand man, Geoffrey Howe, wielded the dagger and did for Mrs Thatcher --- I was witness to the long running TB GBs – the meaningless fractious war between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown --- which obsessed and polluted New Labour – remembering an exchange with one of Blair’s aides : “are you a Brownite ?” – he demanded.. “No ,” was my patient reply “but what they’re accusing you of is ..” “If they talk to you you’re a Brownite.”
So, I am no stranger to British politics as a cross between a Jacobin revenge tragedy and a post modern psychodrama– and vengeance was on display here on both sides --- after all two of those MPs questioning Dominic Cummings – former Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and former business secretary Greg Clarke know he was the guiding force behind their brutal expulsion from high office for being insufficiently Brexity.
But the damage done by Dom wasn’t because it was a startling revelation but precisely because it wasn’t ---confirmation
of not just his enemies .. but his one time closest ally – think that Boris is fundamentally not up to it, not serious enough–– whether suggesting getting injected with COVID on live TV by the Chief Medical Officer or focusing on a tabloid row about his girlfriend’s dog rather than the pandemic.
Which brings me back to that question ‘how does Boris get away with it ?”
I remember talking to a cabinet minister keen on promoting Gordon Brown, who rather hopefully came up with the notion of “charismatic vulnerability “.. that the frank admission of serious flaws can be part of a politician’s charm : in Johnson’s case it is ‘Charismatic Invulnerability’ in an age of cynicism : a Tory Lord, a former MP, no fan of the PMs, recently pointed out to me that a sizeable chunk of those questioned in a recent opinion poll saw the Prime Minister as ‘someone very much like me’ …what he mused did they mean ::::: , an Old Etonian, a serial philanderer, a liar?
Well up to a point, for Johnson’s appeal isn’t despite his clowning – it is because of his clowning – if politicians are all the same, untrustworthy, bungling charlatans – you might as well have one who’s a rumpled, crumpled straight shooting, blokeish bon viveur – a more likeable version of Donald Trump – who once said he could stand on fifth avenue, shoot someone, and people would still vote for him.
Except, except hasn’t the pandemic, poking its fetid fingers into all our lives dramatically altered the equation ? It did for Trump. And
after all part of Cummings’ accusation was that BJ dramatically misread the British character – Asian nations, he thought, may put up with severe lockdowns for the common good – Continental types with no love of liberty in their blood might knuckle under to the state’s decrees, but he wouldn’t dare ask the plucky Brit to show such servile obedience --- this alien American imported notion of the badness of Government cross bred with Brexit fuelled exceptionalism turned out to be very wide of the mark – most people in the UK instinctively followed sensible rules. But Johnson’s has that most admirable quality Napoleon demanded off his generals – luck. That Tory Lord I was telling you about was knocking on doors during the recent local elections – he said after decades of doing this he knows when things are going wrong for a leader … when people air their grievance ..and then say ..’and another thing …. I don’t like whatshisname’. There were this time, no ‘other things’ ..the vaccine was the one big thing .. gratitude not grievance …out of the chaos of Downing Street, by luck or rare, good judgment came salvation. Soaking on the beach, and soaking up pints in the pub I was one of many who felt – two jabs and you’re out .. like a curse had been lifted –
so for now Boris can stand under the thunderclap of Dom’s judgement, not drenched in shame by the downpour but like us Cornish holiday makers, beaming with unlikely relief – gratitude and luck only last so long but for now Boris has got away with it. Again.