It’s easy to comfort yourself that your opponents are bad people. But I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man
What a masterly put down from Keir Starmer's conference speech. Nothing could be more wounding to a narcissist than being called trivial. It's dismissive and contemptuous. Starmer was also nodding towards Angela Rayner – 'that's how to do it.' The only problem is that it's wrong. Johnson is a bad man. He's bad enough to be dangerous.
We've lived through an era of triviality in serious times. Populism has saturated politics after the financial crisis. When we needed complex interventions, we were offered simple solutions. No serious politician would have even risked leaving the EU. The costs and consequences were clear to anyone who was not blinded by ideology. With a disruptive and organised minority of extremists pushing for idiocy, any capable party leader would have crushed them. They should have been marginalised not indulged. Cameron's stupidity has now meant that the extremists have taken over the party. Conservatism has been replaced by nationalism.
Even allowing for the referendum result, nobody with any sense would have delivered Brexit, certainly not in this way. It wouldn't have been unprecedented to dodge a bullet in the national interest. After the bizarre 2011 referendum in Greece, Tsipras looked at the consequences of expulsion from the Euro, forgot the result, and did a deal on worse terms than the ones that had been rejected. Varoufakis was ditched to spend more time making a lot of money out of the credulous. Instead of choosing sanity, Britain ploughed ahead with self-harm. But then we were in the land of the inadequate, with Etonian overconfidence facing post-Leninist self-righteousness. While May, more serious but not more capable, allowed her obsession with immigration to trump the national interest.
Johnson appears to be the most trivial of all. But Max Hastings got him right early.
Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.
His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.
And here, after his ascent to power was guaranteed:
… he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.
Sonia Purnell said the same in her devastating biography of Johnson. And even in our small corner of Greece, where the Johnson family have a holiday home, he is disliked by people who have had dealings with him. As Hastings puts it, "Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him."
Johnson tells lies with easy confidence. About everything. If stuck for a reply, he makes it up. But something more important is going on. Pressure on the courts, threatening the BBC, voter suppression through photo ID, restricting the independence of the Electoral Commission, etc. etc. These steps are all drawn from the alt-right playbook. While being excused over Covid for his libertarian instincts, his authoritarian actions are there to see and point to a different person.
Journalists are fond of naive pieces saying that Johnson is to be ousted, that he will step down, that his time is up. Forget it. This is the one thing he cares about, and all his ruthlessness and cunning will be used to keep him in power. He doesn't want to use it for any serious purpose, he wants it for himself.
There was one chance to get rid of him early after his prorogation of Parliament was found to be unlawful. There was a majority of MPs who would have voted for a motion of no confidence and installed a temporary government. Corbyn's ego prevented that as he insisted that he had to lead it, rather than a senior figure with no personal ambitions who was acceptable to all. However, Johnson was still stuck until the opposition parties astonishingly gave him the early general election he craved. Bad people have to be lucky in their enemies if they are to persist. And the opposition will miss opportunities if they don't take their opponent seriously and forget that the chances won't come round again for a long time. No, Johnson is not trivial, and though it's a beautifully cruel jibe, thinking he is will lead to a fatal underestimation of such a flawed, and destructive man.