In September 2019, Britain’s brand new prime minister, Boris Johnson, gave some advice to a class of eight-year-old children, and that advice was to make sure they didn’t drink too much at university.
It’s on video. Two of them laugh. Another just peers at the prime minister, on account of not knowing what university really is – or, for that matter, what he means by “drink”.
He meant it though. Despite being 55 years old, and having finally and belatedly got round to claiming what he considered to be his birthright – namely the keys to 10 Downing Street – there he was, still stewing on the knowledge that, more than 30 years previously, he hadn’t worked hard enough. The knowledge that he had been too easily tempted by vicarious pleasures, and that, despite having arrived at Oxford to study the classics on a full scholarship, he had left with only a 2:1 rather than the first-class honours to which he had assumed himself entitled.
Johnson should have had an advantage over the heroes in the plays he skim-read back then. It is a rare good fortune to be so aware of your fatal flaw, but it proved to be of no use to him whatsoever. He was, in the end, rather better at projecting his shortcomings onto primary school children who didn’t really understand them, and then kicking them up the arse on their behalf, than facing them down himself.
Has he been telling himself, all his adult life, that things have got to change? That he’s got to work harder? Got to muster the detail? That he’s not just going to be able to blag and bluster his way through everything?
It is almost pitiful to imagine how loudly those voices must have been screaming in his head on Wednesday afternoon, which at no point went any better than one of those exam-based anxiety dreams. He was in the chair. The clock had begun ticking. Here were the questions. He did not have the answers.
It could hardly have been a more fitting end to a political career the likes of which has almost certainly never been seen before, or will ever be again.
When asked why he had left journalism for politics, Johnson is meant to have said: “They don’t put up statues to journalists.”
It has been repeated many times. No one seems to be quite sure if it is true, which only makes it a more appropriate epitaph to a political career that ended, in any serious sense, six months ago. Only he could possibly imagine that being defenestrated from 10 Downing Street by his own party, for no reason beyond the correct calculation that nobody would ever believe a word he had to say ever again, could somehow not mark the end.
But the end certainly came on Wednesday, as he ranted his last at the privileges committee while its members gently killed him with kindness.
And so, as Johnson’s long career in public life (though not of public service) comes to a close, one wonders where the statue might go. What might it say upon the plinth? Maybe it will just say “They don’t put up statues to journalists”, and whether or not he ever actually said it will just be part of the fun.
What would it commemorate? Who might commission it? Who might pay for it? The Boris Fan Club is dwindling to nothing. Perhaps Nadine Dorries might work up some kind of topiaried sculpture. She is a keen gardener after all (according to her own social media accounts, she was reseeding her lawn the weekend before last, 48 hours before an overnight frost. It was very clearly forecast, but it’s not always easy to see things if you don’t want to believe them).
It’s hard to tell if a different path might have been possible for Johnson. He was finished off by the pandemic, but it was not Covid that ended his political life; it was his character. Now that he’s got a bit more time on his hands to finish that Shakespeare biography, he won’t have to look very hard through the pages of Hamlet to find one or two lines on character and fate. They will no doubt come as great comfort to him. He already wrote a biography of Winston Churchill and made it all about Boris Johnson. Now he can do the same with Shakespeare.
There is, of course, a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. In 2012, London and Johnson were lucky to have each other. In that triumphant fortnight, seven years in the making, he had no executive role whatsoever beyond chief cheerleader. He was incredibly good at it.
After the games finished, the country frankly could and should have seen what was coming. The story of West Ham’s deal to lease the Olympic stadium is complex, but in hindsight, captivating. There was no viable tenant, and it was at risk of turning into a bit of disaster. So Johnson steamed in, personally appointed himself head of the relevant decision-making body, ended the faffing about, and threw £200m of public money at the problem to turn it into a proper football stadium. He turned up for the photoshoot, holding up a West Ham kit with “Boris” written on the back, and that was that.
At the time, as a sports news reporter covering that story, I was mesmerised. It was clear that Johnson was a politician unlike any I had really encountered before. He made it happen. He made the breakthrough.
And then, four years later, it became very clear that the deal was terrible. It was going to cost taxpayers tens of millions a year more than had been predicted, the lease returns were pitiful, the stadium wasn’t fit for purpose, and the whole thing was a disaster.
It is a saga I have mentally returned to many times in the years since.
On the day he became prime minister, Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street, and instead of issuing some meaningless worthy words, he instead announced that he had “a plan for social care, ready to go”. Wallop. Not talking: doing. Trouble is, he didn’t. It was entirely made up.
He had an “oven-ready deal” that would later have to be taken out of the oven and scraped into the bin.
He went to Northern Ireland before the election in 2019, telling a room full of businesspeople: “I’m the prime minister of this country, and I’m telling you there’s going to be no checks on goods going from the mainland to Northern Ireland.”
What he was telling them wasn’t true. It was just noise. He was, in his own way, getting Brexit done. He was driving a digger through a styrofoam wall, but it was all a stunt.
He was going to “level up” the country. He created a department for levelling up, though he never quite got round to explaining what the term meant. There were “40 new hospitals” that weren’t real. “World-beating” this, “world-leading” that. None of it ever came to pass.
He will certainly believe himself to have been terribly unlucky. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Johnson’s happy place is writing pseudo-libertarian rubbish in the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph, not looking sombrely down the camera and shutting down the pubs for another four months. But it is hard to connive another ending.
It has been said and written of him so many times that he imagines himself to be above the rules that trouble only the little people. His old teacher at Eton wrote it of him, in a letter to his parents, almost half a century ago. More precisely, he does not seem to see the rules as such; instead he sees only the prospect of a battle of wills between himself and whoever made them. And he always backs himself to win.
It’s not necessarily a bad philosophy to live by, but his inevitable demise should reassure the rest of us that, though it may take a while, the truth tends to win. There is a long way to go, but we do appear to be on a slow march out of the land of make-believe, and of government by fantasy, at very long last.
In the final hours of his political life, Johnson became ever more agitated, as the simple facts (and indeed photographs) of what he had said and done were laid out before him.
“If liberty means anything at all,” wrote George Orwell, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” I think he might have been a journalist. They might even have built a statue of him.