Boris Johnson is Mr Charisma in British political terms.
Admittedly, there’s not too much competition: God bless Keir Starmer, but it wasn’t a surprise to learn his middle name is Rodney.
But Boris seems to reach parts of the electorate that few others can – from former “red wall” seats in northern England to urban London, which had voted in Ken Livingstone for mayor, even though he was rather too left wing for Tony Blair’s taste.
And with that charisma goes a remarkable political buoyancy. Even though he has plainly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, the opinion polls still show significant leads over Labour. And why not?
It’s often better to be lucky than right
The current prime minister finally achieved Brexit (even though he had been the main obstacle to its completion when Theresa May was PM), and he has taken the credit for the AstraZeneca vaccine (despite his repeated lateness in ordering lockdowns now having caused three spikes).
‘What’s the harm?’ you might say. Half-truths, obfuscation and dissimulation are the currency of politics, after all. But can we accept this from the prime minister?
It’s often better to be lucky than to be right. And with Boris’ bonhomie and verbal dexterity, he engages people in a way that – for example – the prim and proper Theresa May never could.
However, with charisma often goes a trait that is its dark twin. It is an unwillingness to play by the rules. If people like you, they let you get away with stuff.
This worked just fine for Boris as a political journalist, when making up stories about the EU brought him a great deal of attention; and when on the rise in the Conservative party, when lying to party leaders but still somehow climbing the greasy pole.
“What’s the harm?” you might say. Half-truths, obfuscation and dissimulation are the currency of politics, after all.
But can we accept this from the prime minister? We usually expect someone with a bit more dignity and moral stature in that position.
You don’t always get someone with these virtues in 10 Downing Street (Lloyd George, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair being three examples), but it surely comes as part of the job description.
UK U-turn on Northern Ireland is alarming
Government and diplomacy are often hugely dull precisely because of the exactitude they demand: these are often massive issues affecting millions, and detail, precision and certainty are the basis of good government.
Yet you can’t imagine Boris taking a similar pleasure from the government grind. He would rather write a polemic than get right down into the granular detail where policy is really made.
So it is truly alarming to see the UK Government demanding the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit Agreement be renegotiated. This, of course, was the great head-scratcher of Theresa May’s government.
If the province is to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, as it must according to the Good Friday Agreement, then it needs to remain within the EU’s tariff zone, effectively putting a border down the Irish Sea.
Boris knew all this, and signed up anyway. This let him “get Brexit done” and win the 2019 general election. He even said, at the time, that if there were extra forms to fill out, to throw them in the bin.
But it, of course, means that Northern Ireland has different trading rules from the rest of the UK, and means its effective rupturing. Now the PM wants to change the protocol that he signed. Rules are for fools, right?
Boris will always talk a good game and never follow through
So the Brexit secretary Lord Frost is making a hue and cry of the unfairness of a freely agreed treaty, telling the House of Lords that the UK “cannot go on as we are” given the “ongoing febrile political climate” in Northern Ireland. No matter that Boris Johnson’s own government created this climate, or that the unionist parties repeatedly warned about this.
As an example of bad faith, it is hard to beat. Yet as a political tactic it might even work: no doubt the EU is sick to death of the UK’s fecklessness.
If he is not careful, the prime minister will go from political sex appeal to being a twice-divorced dad in double denim and Old Spice, consumed by lager and cigarettes and wondering where it all went wrong
The EU vice-president in charge of UK relations, Maroš Šefčovič, said Brussels sought “flexible, practical solutions”, suggesting there might be a fudged solution somewhere.
But while this may work as a short-term tactic, what it really does is eat up political capital. It burns the UK’s reputation for fair play and straight talk.
In diplomacy, these are invaluable, but Boris has always seemed keen to spend what others have so diligently accumulated. And who then can trust anything he might say? Why would any nation look to the UK as an exemplar?
Boris might be a charmer, but charisma has a limited currency if you’re continually caught cheating. If he is not careful, the prime minister will go from political sex appeal to being a twice-divorced dad in double denim and Old Spice, consumed by lager and cigarettes and wondering where it all went wrong.
Oh, he’ll still talk a good game and say how things will be different this time. But the eyes will tell you otherwise.
Susan Urticant is a teacher from Aberdeen