The key to understanding Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, is not the befuddled onstage act he performs or the inner personality he possesses — if indeed there is one — or even the politics he claims to support. It’s the vacuity. Once you peel away everything else, you find nothing there: no substance, no convictions, no plan. That’s the ultimate Boris punchline. It’s like going on an adventure for buried treasure and finding a whoopee cushion.
The Boris persona itself is fake. Johnson cultivates a carefully crafted, bumbling clown act, one in which the character always turns up late or pretends to have forgotten his lines — a beleaguered journalist-politician-intellectual who just tumbled out of bed. But those who have watched his speeches multiple times realize that the entire presentation, including seemingly off-the-cuff jokes and stories where he appears to lose the thread halfway through, is replicated word for word. It’s all pretend.
Then again, the persona is not supposed to be real. The act is not the act; it is the recognition of the act even while it is taking place. “Boris” is a postmodern invention. For it to work, you have to know that he is not really the bumbling fool but actually a highly intelligent strategist using the bumbling fool persona to advance his career. Even his closest allies endorse this view. The usual comment you will get from them is that Boris is “clever,” or “a man of intelligence.” In other words: He knows exactly what he’s doing.
So who is the Boris behind the clown? Not Boris at all, actually. The prime minister’s first name is Alexander, or “Al” to friends and family. Boris, his middle name, is effectively the stage name.
What’s Al like? What’s his real personality? What are his politics? We simply don’t know. He is a political mirror: He reflects the views of whichever group he needs to win over to advance his career.
When he ran to be London mayor, he was a multicultural, open-minded, cosmopolitan, centrist Tory. When he campaigned for Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he was a Euroskeptic who dabbled in racially tinged anti-immigration propaganda. When he was running to be Tory leader this summer, he was the most hard-line Brexiteer imaginable, who even flirted with shutting down Parliament and putting British democracy on standby so he could force through an exit from the European Union with no deal in place to govern Britain’s departure.
Even on Europe, the subject that now dominates all others, Johnson has no real conviction. In the 1990s, reporting from Brussels for the right-wing Daily Telegraph, he pioneered a subgenre of “news” stories about made-up European regulations. Later in his career, though, he seemed to warm to Europe. He sang the praises of the European single market — before deciding that it was “increasingly useless.” And then, not long before the referendum, he wrote two op-eds: one supporting E.U. membership and one opposing it. Only later did he decide to campaign to Leave.
That was, in the end, the right decision for his career. After all, it triggered a series of events that propelled him to the top. In terms of political strategy, Johnson is quite accomplished. But in terms of political convictions, they do not seem to exist.
It’s similarly hard to pin down Al’s personality. We don’t know much about him. We don’t even know how many children he has because of the trail of broken relationships he has left in his wake. There are some glimpses of the man underneath: Occasionally, you can see a powerful sense of arrogance, a lack of willingness to let anyone else talk and a chuntering discontent at the notion he might not get everything his way.
He seems to have a total inability to grasp detail. In a crucial BBC interview, he relied extensively on a provision in Article 24, Paragraph 5B of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to suggest that Britain could have a standstill arrangement with the E.U. even in the case of no deal. Then the following extraordinary exchange occurred between him and interviewer Andrew Neil.
Neil: “You talk about Article 5B in GATT 24 . . .”
Johnson: “Paragraph 5B. Article 24. Get the detail right. Get the detail right, Andrew. It’s Article 24, Paragraph 5B.”
Neil: “And how would you handle Paragraph 5C?”
Johnson: “I would confide entirely in Paragraph 5B, because that is . . .”
Neil: “But how would you get around what’s in 5C?”
Johnson: “I would confide entirely in Paragraph 5B, which is enough for our purposes.”
Neil: “Do you know what’s in 5C?”
He also seems largely indifferent to telling the truth. He was sacked from his first newspaper job at the Times for making up quotes. The Brexit referendum campaign he helped lead was stuffed full of inaccurate claims, including a massively promoted overestimation of the cost of E.U. membership, which was condemned by the UK Statistics Authority, and the objectively false proposition that Britain had no veto to stop Turkey from joining the E.U. And even his leadership run saw him insist on legal or trade arguments that were outright false. In a typical moment of absurdity, he at one point brandished a smoked fish in front of a large crowd, insisting that there was a pointless European regulation mandating that it be transported with a “plastic ice pillow.” In fact, the regulation is British, and it has a very specific point — namely, to protect consumer health.
You get the sense that nothing that comes out of the mouth of the clown persona should be treated as strictly true, because, after all, it’s only acting. Johnson carries a kind of fictitious conceit around him, like a fuzzy membrane, which objective reality rarely permeates.
But that’s it. All we get are these glimmers of the individual behind the broad, well-worn act. Britain really has no idea who its new prime minister is.
Until this past week, he was quite an easy politician to predict. Johnson would do anything to be prime minister, and every action he took was comprehensible on that basis, designed to bring him closer to that goal. But now he is actually prime minister, so that no longer holds. God knows what happens next.
Certainly, we have no idea what his Brexit policy will be. The options he has promoted are mutually incompatible. He says he wants a deal with the E.U., but he has ruled out the key requirements of what such a deal would entail. He says he will force through a no-deal exit if necessary, but parliamentary opposition makes it highly unlikely he can do so. He says he won’t hold a general election before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31, which would at least give him a chance of getting past the parliamentary deadlock. And he says he won’t countenance another referendum, which might allow him to get his Brexit plan through. He’s ruled out all his options. At least one of these promises is going to be broken, but it’s not immediately clear which one it will be. (On Thursday, in his first speech to the House of Commons as prime minister, he blithely assured the nation that all was well: Soon, Britain would enjoy “the greatest and most prosperous economy in Europe at the center of a new network of trade deals.”)
Here, then, is a person with no convictions, delivering a political project he does not believe in, with a plan that does not exist.
It’s proper, next-level postmodern politics, and there are numerous layers of understanding. But it no longer seems quite so clever.