Political humour and the problem of taking Boris seriously

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, his billionaire tech supporter Peter Thiel scolded the media for taking Trump’s outrageous speeches literally. Thiel’s theory was that “a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally”. The worry for the Conservatives going in to the 2019 UK General Election was that voters would take Boris Johnson neither seriously nor literally. For Boris was essentially a comic persona before becoming Prime Minister, having used humour to distinguish himself from his political peers. Literalness is hardly his forte either – he extended the Brexit negotiating deadline despite promising to die in a ditch before doing so. Hence the challenge he faced when campaigning in the role of serious statesman was whether his carefully crafted reputation as a joker would be an electoral asset or a liability.

Charming the Conservative Party membership into handing him the keys to 10 Downing Street was nothing compared with the task of winning enough swing voters to gain a parliamentary majority. The general election was thus the acid test for the Boris method of trying to be taken seriously while laughing off any criticism. One bad omen was the ITV studio audience openly mocking Johnson’s response when pressed on his relationship with the truth. By conspicuously avoiding an interview with the fearsome Andrew Neil, Boris betrayed the limits of his ability to appear as a composed public performer.

What the election result ultimately demonstrated is the limited importance of being earnest in what has been dubbed a Berlusconified public sphere. The post-referendum political climate in the UK has been marked by high levels of cynicism and distrust. Professional integrity, expertise, and independence of individuals and institutions alike have been impugned for the sake of point-scoring in the battle to settle unfinished arguments about whether Brexit is the right solution for a badly divided Britain.

Seen in this context, the issue of Johnson’s problematic relationship with the truth – he lost a court case effectively brought on the grounds he misled the Queen – is revealing about the true political cost of being ridiculed. Boris did not suffer really as the butt of a thousand jokes from friends and foes alike at home as well as abroad. That brand recognition got him elected mayor of London and was no hindrance to leading the UK’s diplomatic service as Foreign Secretary, before eventually unseating Theresa May as Prime Minister. Rather, in the words of the great satirical novelist Jonathan Coe, the greatest trick Boris Johnson ever played was to “become his own satirist”. Humour was Boris’ strategy for rising to the top; it was a calculated means of deflection designed to ensure that others laugh with him and go gentle on his glaring mistakes, untruths, or moral failings.

Johnson’s cautiously rationed public performances during the campaign suggest he was not seeking to rely too much on playing the fool to win. Yet his successful weaponization of political humour was always available to be deployed at will. Time and again, Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour figures quoted Johnson’s own words – culled from the stream of consciousness journalism that rewarded the Prime Minister handsomely – at him. But for so many voters this was water off a duck’s back; they did not expect comedy Boris to write seriously and were puzzled about taking offence after the fact. Of course, it is no coincidence that the rise of populism in the West is nested within the “culture wars” over the right to cause offence, especially by breaking the supposed taboo of political correctness. Brexit itself is in many ways an extension of this struggle to arbitrate acceptable political discourse, as illustrated by the expression “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”.

In comedy as in politics, issues of power are never far from the surface. By laughing about some of his weaknesses – something the extremely serious and at times petulant Jeremy Corbyn was incapable of doing – Johnson turned comedy in to the currency of his political power. Corbyn turned out to be the perfect, if unwitting, foil: the straight guy in the 2019 electoral double act. The more the Labour leader could be attacked for his moral seriousness and literal-mindedness, the easier it was for Johnson to escape accountability on those fronts with the complicity of a media ecosystem that lapped it all up. In this way the use of humour was a central plank of the strategy for winning an electoral mandate to undertake the serious business of Brexit. What comes next, however, is bound to be less funny. Not because the stakes are higher, but rather because it is harder to turn the details of fisheries policy or level playing field requirements in to comic material needed to distract from the consequences of Johnson’s choices.