Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
In order to properly scrutinise the Prime Minister’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he must be held to a standard of professionalism and ignore his attempts at PR antics and image building. We must deconstruct the myth of Boris to truly evaluate his job as Prime Minister.
The 2012 Olympics was the making of Boris Johnson, as London Mayor, he gained a place on the national and the world stage. At this time, he also cemented his media image. The image of Johnson dangling from a zip wire is infamous; it was hardly graceful or statesmanlike, but there he was waving his union jacks, showing he did not take himself too seriously. This became central to his public image and his appeal to voters. He isn’t relatable but he is endearing, and more importantly he is harmless.
Boris Johnson wanted to be Prime Minister; his political decisions were geared to nurturing this image of an anti-establishment figure he was creating which was widening his appeal.
Johnson’s most crucial political decision was throwing his weight behind the Leave campaign. Here was a New York born, Eton educated, Bullingdon member, being the mouthpiece for those who felt they had been ignored by Westminster for years.
The reasons for the victory of the Leave campaign are complex, much more so than Remain campaigners would care to admit, as many would prefer to paint all leave voters with one brush. But for many, voting to leave the EU seemed to be a way to push back against liberal elites. Johnson understood this and somehow became a symbol of anti-establishment politics, despite being nothing but the establishment.
A key part of this was the media circus he had managed to create. He was not afraid to be the butt of the joke but was willing to stand up for the British public. The cornerstone to this is the character of ‘Boris’.
The last Prime Minister known by their first name was Thatcher, but Maggie was a caricature created by the press and certainly not endorsed by Mrs Thatcher. Boris is a lot more purposeful. His family don’t even call him Boris, which is his middle name, he is known as Al, short for Alexander. But for our Prime Minister being referred to as ‘Boris’ is key in communicating who he is; a loveable rogue who speaks for the people. He wants you to see him as his mate, someone you meet in the pub. Boris is so embedded in how we see him, that his image and his politics are not evaluated separately.
Johnson is not a crisis Prime Minister. He is not someone who thrives on detail and precision, rather big messages and performance. When posed with difficult questions without the churlish heckling of Tory backbenchers behind him, he looks uninformed and uncomfortable. The Cummings scandal has confirmed the reliance Johnson has on his chief aide. Understanding the angsts of Leave voters, can ultimately be attributed to Cummings not Johnson.
The Cummings situation has damaged Johnson’s position. Polls suggest his popularity has fallen and trust in the government is low.
However, he still has more support than the current media coverage would suggest. Johnson’s handling of the crisis before this point has been heavily scrutinised, but he still was heavily favoured over Sir Keir Starmer in the polls. There has been a clear narrative surrounding our Prime Minister’s handling of the crisis that ‘he is trying his best’. Of course, these are unprecedented times, but as we stand with the biggest death toll in Europe, at what point is his best is not good enough?
This narrative comes back to the character Johnson created. The idea that he may be a bit rough round the edges, but he is harmless. Boiling Johnson’s successes down to this is of course simplistic, the British public have not based their votes solely on this image put in front of them. But the continued defence of Johnson’s handling of the crisis, suggests that it has penetrated the public’s view.
By breaking down this myth of Boris and instead looking at him as Johnson, we might be able to look beyond the PR friendly tactics and examine his record as leader. By referring to him as Prime Minister or Mr Johnson a certain professionalism is implied that his actions can then be judged against. Maybe then we will have a better understanding of who the Prime Minister really is.