The prime minister has shown seriousness when it mattered mostby Rachel Sylvester / March 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson has always played the fool. The Tories’ Lord of Misrule has spent his entire life pushing the boundaries and railing against convention. He has broken the rules and got away with it, but there was always a sense among his family and friends that one day he would grow up and put his youthful indiscretions behind him. The clown would turn into a statesman, or transform like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV part one, who rejects Falstaff to become a worthy king—“like bright metal on a sullen ground/My reformation, glittering o’er my fault/Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”
For years, it never happened. As London mayor, Johnson prided himself on embodying the optimism of the 2012 Olympics, but he was still a joker, who was memorably photographed stuck on a zip-wire waving two union jacks. “Did I ham up the buffoon image or did I get trapped in it?” He mused to me at the time, before citing Dennis the Menace as his cartoon hero. Mischief was his guiding force and his newspaper columns were his pea-shooter.
Johnson had the chance to gravitate to gravitas when he was appointed foreign secretary, but he failed to do so. Instead, he was responsible for a series of diplomatic disasters that had profound consequences for people’s lives—British mother Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe is still in Iran, unable to be reunited with her husband and daughter, following one of his gaffes. He suggested that the Libyan city of Sirte would have a bright future if it simply “cleared the dead bodies away” and insulted Britain’s European allies. Ambassadors and civil servants lost all respect for him and the intelligence agencies reportedly became nervous about sharing confidential information in case it “popped up in an after-dinner speech.” One of his former ministerial colleagues Alan Duncan suggested that he had become Johnson’s “pooper scooper” because he had cleared up his mess so many times.
Now Johnson is prime minister at a time of national crisis and he has finally been forced to grow up, acquiring a new seriousness of purpose and personality. The coronovirus pandemic is not a joking matter. There is no room for mischief when people are…