The latest Boris Johnson collection has lots of laughs and little substanceby Robin McGhee / June 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Contrary to his own belief, Boris Johnson’s political success has only a few parallels with that of Winston Churchill. One notable similarity is how they both rest their success on a combination of basic political skill and an ability to be universally entertaining. In The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (Bloomsbury, £9.99), the latest collection of Boris ephemera, he is on spectacular form.
Johnson has produced a small whale of journalistic patter over the course of his career, on which he has secreted many barnacles of genuinely quotable brilliance. Their quality lies in the absolute perfection with which he pitches his irony. He has managed to say vulgar things only because he is joking, and yet make it clear he is joking only by being vulgar. Take this, on Prince Harry’s recent adventures in Nevada: “I think it’d be disgraceful if a chap wasn’t allowed to have fun in Las Vegas. The real scandal would be if you went all the way to Las Vegas and didn’t misbehave in some trivial way.”
This entertainment is conceived, written and presented by a one-man cast and draws heavily on a true story. The evidence suggests that although Johnson is a ruthless political operator, his success is mainly based on his talent for humour: as he puts it, “I think it’s important to remember that most people find politics unbelievably dull, so I don’t see any particular vice in trying to sugar the pill with a few jokes.” The methods Johnson has used in his social mountaineering are not remotely original. In politics, as in so many other fields of life, simply being known is a good way of getting on. It is merely to be taken for granted that celebrity will lead to political support regardless of actual ability. By getting people to enjoy paying attention to him, Johnson can automatically catapult himself above the Commons herd.
The problem comes when he attains significant political office—and Mayor of London, second city of the global elite, is certainly that. Johnson used his celebrity to become CEO of a city he was not an MP for and had hardly lived in until his 30s. Just as he has scarcely bothered to cultivate a geographic power base, so he lacks any…