Boris Johnson’s Secret? He’s the Master of Political Cheer
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As fuel ran short at U.K. pumps and “eco-warriors” brought London’s highways to a standstill, Boris Johnson was in the midst of a bravura speech at the Conservative party conference on Wednesday, full of relentless good cheer.
Right-wing think tanks, usually supportive of the Tories, disliked the speech for different reasons than the usual Boris-bashers. The Adam Smith Institute called it “economically illiterate.” Big-business spokesmen accused Johnson of treating them like a “bogeyman” about labor shortages. The government’s hike in national insurance to pay for increased social spending has damaged his party’s reputation as enthusiastic tax-cutters, too, according to a YouGov poll from Friday.
But I would not underestimate the appeal of an optimist. Political Tiggers tend to out-live the Eeyores.
After 18 months of the pandemic and years of tedious debate about Brexit, the U.K. is not in the mood to hear more bad news. Voters would like to start having some fun. It is no coincidence that the mini skirt is back in fashion: Shorter hemlines have always accompanied good times, from the swinging ‘60s to the cool Britannia of the ‘90s.
“Can you think of a better message to the party faithful and the country outside?” asked a Conservative cabinet minister when I queried his boss’s failure to acknowledge the gravity of the economic news. Johnson’s boosterism seems more in tune with the popular mood than Labour’s woebegone message, which, as Johnson teased, has all the appeal of a “damp tea towel.”
My Tory informant may also have science on his side. Research undertaken on the links between happiness and politics indicates that when voters devote more attention to current affairs, the unhappier they become. Politicians are usually wise to put on a happy face unless the sober happenstance of national disaster dictates otherwise.
As a journalist based in Washington and London, I have long observed that the upbeat optimist tends to triumph over the gloomy technocrat. In U.S. presidential contests between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush senior, George “Dubya” Bush and Al Gore, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and even Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the winner was the person whom an average voter would prefer to hang out with.
Where America leads on political culture, Britain follows. Johnson, though a Tory, looks to Labour’s perennially upbeat Tony Blair and his three electoral triumphs for inspiration. He doesn’t share Blair’s messianic zeal or religiosity (that would be a stretch given his tangled love life), but even the prime minister’s most bitter opponents concede his Blair-like appeal to voters outside of his party’s traditional base.
When asked by pollsters which politician they would choose to have a beer down at the pub with, voters plump for “Boris.” In my lifetime Johnson is one of only three politicians known to all by their first name — alongside Margaret Thatcher (although “Maggie” was as often cursed as praised) and Blair (who often had the adjective “phony” fixed before Tony). Winners all.
Even with serious-minded Germany, the same rule applies. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat leader who got the most votes in last month’s election, was hardly the life and soul of the party as finance minister, but he was always careful to smile broadly for the cameras during the campaign even if it gained him the nickname from a cross opponent of “the grinning Smurf.” The only other Social Democrat to win in recent times, Gerhard Schroeder, overcame his hard-scrabble upbringing with good humor and let it be known that he enjoyed life’s pleasures from cigars to red wine.
The new BBC television series “Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution” — a kind of “Hamilton” drama for recent British politics — reminds viewers of how a hopeful message helped Blair to victory. Inevitably, the narrative follows his love-hate relationship with his comrade-in-arms and successor, Gordon Brown, a brooding Scot to whom the English never truly warmed, opening the door to a Conservative government under David Cameron.
Forever thinking of complex ways to triangulate between the left and right in politics, Brown was first passed over for Labour’s leadership despite his greater experience and intellectual superiority. Where Brown ratiocinated, an energetic Blair intuited that the voters wanted the best of both capitalism and social welfare. Ideology didn’t come into it. The young opposition leader’s victory song was “Things can only get better.” The message was fuzzy feel-good and voters sang along.
With no fixed principles, Boris likes feel-good too. He knows his preposterous boasts and jokes are not taken seriously, but more voters have preferred to laugh with him than cry with his glum predecessor Theresa May or his last Labour opponent, Jeremy Corbyn. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is a rising example of the New Cheer — she rocked out to “Simply the best” at an LGBTQ disco at the party’s conference.
And if Blair was “Teflon Tony,” on whom no charge of sleaze could stick, then “Bounce Back Boris” bobs above personal disasters and scandals that would have sunk many a gloomier politician.
Johnson, it is said, will always duck the hard choices in order to buy off discontent. Much the same accusation was flung at Blair. Yet Labour never forgave Blair for cheerleading George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq. Diehard opponents of Brexit pursue a vendetta with the prime minister to this day for his part in winning the referendum to leave the European Union.
Reality must bite in the end, of course. If the bad economic news persists Johnson cannot wish it away. He was slow to face up to the implications of the pandemic and he can’t afford to bury his head in the sand a second time.
But while the prime minister’s Labour opponents can score points by denouncing his foibles and his prevarication, they have not yet found an inspirational or optimistic narrative of their own. Until they do, this is still Boris’s time. Simply the best.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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