Prof John Street
Professor in the School of Political, Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia.
Section 8: Personality politics and Pop Culture
- Tune in, turn away, drop out: emotionality and the decision not to stand
- Linguistic style in the Johnson vs Corbyn televised debates of the 2019 General Election campaign
- Order! Order! The Speaker, celebrity politics and ritual performance
- Last fan standing: Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the 2019 General Election
- Creating Boris: Nigel Farage and the 2019 election
- Boris the clown: the effective performance of incompetence
- Political humour and the problem of taking Boris seriously
- Joking: uses and abuses of humour in the Election campaign
- The problem with satirising the election
- Sounding Off: music and musicians’ interventions in the 2019 election campaign
- Stormzy, status, and the serious business of social media spats
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have dominated the media coverage of the election, with each receiving 30+% of the coverage in the last days of the campaign. Much of the coverage of Corbyn was negative, demonising him in any number of ways (e.g. ‘Cor-bin’ in The Sun or ‘Apologists for Terror’ in the Daily Mail), but what of the Prime Minister? How was Johnson portrayed, beyond the faked familiarity of ‘Boris’ and ‘BoJo’?
Matthew Wood and his colleagues used Boris Johnson’s London mayoral campaign and career to illustrate their notion of the ‘everyday celebrity politician’. This figure, they argued, was a product of an era of anti-politics and of the new modes of communication made available via social media and other non-traditional media platforms. The everyday celebrity politician evinced an image of ‘normality’, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘authenticity’.
This analysis seemed to capture exactly the strategy adopted by the Conservative Party and Johnson’s advisers. The pictures of Johnson pulling pints in a pub, delivering milk, or operating factory machinery, together with the predictable primary school and hospital photos, all served to represent him in ‘everyday’ contexts.
The celebrity dimension was captured in the party election broadcasts that bookended the campaign. The 12 Questions video that began the campaign has had, according to YouTube, more than 250,000 views. (The best viewed Labour equivalent, Mean Tweets with Jeremy Corbyn, received 86,000 views). 12 Questions borrows from Vogue’s 73 Questions. Both evince an air of spontaneity as the subject responds to a series of serious and not-so-serious enquiries. It begins as it goes on: “Hey, Boris, you alright? … What’s been on your mind today?” He is then asked about why he’s called the election – whether he likes Marmite (“yes”), what challenges face the country, and which is his favourite band (The Rolling Stones) – while he wanders a corridor and makes himself tea.
The campaign ended with a parody of a scene from Love Actually (itself a parody of Bob Dylan’s video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ from 1965). Instead of Andrew Lincoln on the doorstep, confessing his love to Keira Knightley with a series of hand-drawn posters and a cassette of Christmas carols, Johnson serenades a voter with his promise to “get Brexit done”. It was viewed 440,000 times in the two days before December 12th. Here was Johnson, playing the lovable rogue, framed by the glamour of the movie world.
Both of these videos, in their different ways, represented Johnson, in the words of James Brassett and Alex Sutton, as the “world’s first self-satirising politician” – a claim further underlined by the sight of Johnson driving a JCB through a wall of polystyrene bricks to convey his determination to get Brexit done.
The self-satirical pose provided a device for eluding criticism, and for securing media endorsement. Leo McKinstry wrote in the Daily Express of “the jovial atmosphere inspired by the Prime Minister”, of Johnson’s ability to “[bring] smiles” and his “unique capacity to amuse and entertain the public”. Other journalists translated his style into some notion of ‘authenticity’ that established his credentials as both a representative of his electorate and a leader of them.
Brassett and Sutton quote the TV and film satirist Armando Iannucci saying that politicians “no longer act like real versions of themselves. Instead, they come over as replicants of an idealised, fictional version of what they think a politician should be. They perform politics rather than practice policy … We’re left watching an entertainment rather than participating in a state of affairs”. It is a description that fits both Johnson and his representation in this campaign – the everyday, self-satirising celebrity politician.
But there is more to be said. First, in adopting the ‘everyday’ approach, Johnson was refusing the kind of superstar celebrity persona adopted by Donald Trump, whose political style has been compared to that of rock stars or stand-up comedians. And second, there is the question of what kind of entertainer or entertainment Johnson is borrowing to confect his everyday persona. To recall Love Actually, it seems as if the plan is for Johnson to channel the humility and charm of Hugh Grant’s fictional PM, although, to some, surprised by his appearance on their doorstep, he might more resemble Grant’s sleazy villain from Paddington 2.