As I get older, it seems politics gets sillier and sillier. At least I live in Scotland, which, no matter how much I may bitch about the SNP’s record on education, has as its leader, an intelligent, committed and serious person. But Trump got elected in the US and…Boris is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. How can these things have happened?
Quite recently, I was talking about Boris with my best friend, Iain Scott, who is an historian and knows, it seems to me, more or less everything. I studied English and consequently know nothing – except about sin – though I try to make a great use out of my little knowledge. So the good Dr Scott and I discussed whether Boris is the worst British Prime Minister ever, a view popularly taken by my less historically versed friends. Iain considered this carefully and eventually concluded that, in his awfulness, Boris was only surpassed by Lord Liverpool, who was Prime Minister for twelve years in the early 19th Century and whom Iain described as a ‘pernicious monster’. Whatever Boris is, it would be hard to see him as a monster.
Still, it makes one embarrassed to consider the odium poured on previous Prime Ministers. My father, for example, hated Jim Callaghan; I never liked Blair – something about the vaguely mad eyes – and, of course, at least in Scotland, more or less everyone despised Mrs Thatcher. Oh but boys and girls, how wrong we all were. These people seem like giants now, for worse, much worse, was to come; we should have saved our toughest condemnations for Boris, though he is, truth to tell, an increasingly easy target as the end, dimly, hoves into sight and we begin to consider the horrors of succession.
But…but…there’s a problem for me in all this, which is that I think I would really like Boris if I met him. I think if I was sitting next to him at dinner I would find him funny and engaging and possibly even…genuine. Ok he’s posh, but I don’t share the instinctive block hatred of posh English people that so many of my countrymen have; I always felt that Ed Milliband – or much more Corbyn – was instinctively alien to me, in a way someone like David Cameron was not. And this isn’t because I taught in private schools – to be honest, there were very few truly posh kids in either of them. It’s just that I lack that prejudice.
Then there’s something else. What is Boris? Boris is a chap from a privileged background who became Mayor of London. That was probably ok in general: certainly he seemed popular enough much of the time. Then he was a journalist, writing ‘witty’, superficial, populist stuff and that again was probably ok in general; yes, he was offensive and inappropriate, but then, so were many others. He was, in essence, a big, opinionated balloon of a man, always looking for the next laugh. Then there was Brexit, then he was Prime Minister – it was all a terrible sudden mistake, as, lubricated by hubris and Eton, he really believed he could lead the country. He really thought he could. Maybe for a bit.
I don’t think he does any more. His dishevelled charisma is now spent, his jokes are no longer funny, he is half-hearted. How he must wish he had stayed as the editor of the school satirical weekly rather than been thrust into the School Captaincy. Watching him fumbling his speech at the CBI it was as if he realised some little boy had noticed he was dressed as a clown and, in truth, it seemed he just couldn’t be arsed pretending anymore. He’d be great in a farce or a pantomime, but he’s cast himself in a tragedy, and he doesn’t even know his lines anymore.
I too, in my little world, found myself, not in charge of a country but of a school. This was not something I ever really wanted to do but eventually I more or less had to; I liked teaching, and in my managerial years I enjoyed power but feared responsibility. It may seem bathetic to extend this idea, but Boris is not sublime and I hope I wasn’t totally ridiculous. I too was a confident communicator who relied (too much) on good humour, but the big difference – apart from the enormity of his job – was that I had a brilliant team to support me, and Boris, oh Boris does not. In his worst moments, sitting at Prime Minister’s questions facing an increasingly confident, very clever, continuingly dull, Sir Keir, Boris must sometimes look to his right and left, at his Cabinet, and wish the rats would desert the sinking ship.
So, as Boris begins to show what, in truth, he’s always been like, and I celebrate four years of retirement from a post for which I was not really ideally suited, I want to thank my Cabinet – and indeed my backbenchers – for their brilliant work and for not being Priti Patel or Dominic Raab. What a funny old world that would have been.