The rise and rise of Boris Johnson – do we care more about charisma than character?

I’m quite aware that despite this blog being called God and Politics in the UK, over the last couple of weeks there’s been lots of talk about God, but not so much about politics.  That’s mainly the fault of Pope Francis and Justin Welby, but I’ve no complaints about the impact both of them have made.  It’s time though to turn back to politics and the tricky decision  from the last day has been what  to focus on.  It could have been David Cameron’s immigration speech that seemed to be more about rhetoric than action or the fight over the education system between Michael Gove and the unions (something that is close to my heart and may be returned to in another post), but in the end I’ve plumped for Boris Johnson.

It’s often said that a week is a long time in politics, but in Boris John’s case it’s taken less than 48 hours to go from an interview that was described as a car crash that had hindered his aims to become the next Conservative leader to last night’s BBC2 biographical documentary that has gained him plenty of praise on Twitter and reviewers being won over his performance.  The bizarre aspect of this is that his interview with Eddie Mair on BBC1 on Sunday discussed the same points about his private life as did the documentary, so what changed?

Boris is one of those rare characters who is irresistible in front of the camera.  Compared to the horde of straight-laced politicians who will make you want to throw something at the television if they go on too long, he oozes charisma and charm in his bumbling, buffoon-like way that makes him entertainment gold.  He’s also one of those rare politicians that successfully reaches out across the political divide.  Until he became Mayor of London, the Conservatives had been hammered by Ken Livingstone in the mayoral elections, but Boris produced a big swing in his favour in 2008 and then went on to keep this seat last year despite his party being hit hard in the local elections.  Whilst many politicians these days appear to be little more than party ‘Yes’ men and women, Boris hasn’t been afraid to forge his own path and at times disagree publicly with David Cameron.  His suggestion back in 2010 that the Government’s cuts in housing benefits could cause “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of the poor from London was a prime example.

The Olympics were a triumph for the nation and Boris took full advantage of the them.  It almost appears at times that he can do no wrong.  Even when he does mess up, which for him is not infrequent, he manages to bounce back, usually through humour and making light of the situation.  Following his wince-inducing performance Sunday’s interview which drew attention to his sackings from both the Times and the shadow cabinet for lying amongst other things, he still managed to deflect attention by praising Eddie Mair for his “splendid job” in questioning him about his integrity, saying Mr Mair had been “perfectly within his rights to have a bash at me”.  David Cameron has added that Boris’ ability to get out of a spot” should not be underestimated.  Boris may act like a shambling, nice-but-dim mop of blond hair, but in reality his head is firmly screwed on.

By the end of BBC2’s Boris Johnson: the Irresistible Rise I came away thinking that it had been a great bit of promotion for Boris.  He laughed and joked his way through it all with a good deal of hilarity whilst managing to make his excuses for his affairs, other past indiscretions and acts of bad judgement.  The programme finished by leaving you in little doubt that he has his eyes set on the job of Prime Minister even though he wouldn’t bring himself to say it.

There are few politicians who could have dealt with this exposure of their failings this well and that is part of what gives Boris his strength and appeal.  The media has the ability to make and break people, to build them up or knock them down.  Usually the media does the manipulating, but in Boris’ case he has the uncanny ability to turn things around and manipulate them to his own advantage even if his back is against the wall.

Maybe one day he will become Prime Minister.  Compared to our other leaders he has a lot going for him and perhaps he could do an excellent job.  Charm and charisma are powerful traits to be blessed with, but they can obscure what lies beneath.  Despite all the probing, questions about Boris’ integrity were never fully answered.  With David Cameron and Tony Blair, we’ve had two leaders who have drawn plenty of criticism, but throughout their time in office, they have avoided personal scandals and there has been an integrity in their personal lives that Boris along with various MPs have not matched.

We as humans are so often won over by people with a magnetic attraction, but this sort of allure can blind us to their faults in a similar way to falling in love.  We ignore or skip over their failings because we want to enjoy the moment, because they give us something good that others have failed to do.  When the prophet Samuel was searching for a new king for Israel, the Bible talks about God not looking at the things people look at. He chastises Samuel for focusing on outward appearances telling him that what is on the inside is most important.  Jesus too attracted a great number of people to him, but for different reasons to Boris Johnson.

There’s nothing wrong with liking Boris Johnson, in fact it’s hard not to like him, but when we look for the qualities of a good leader, entertainment value is not enough.  Fortunately he has proved himself to be a capable Mayor of London, but if he hadn’t been up to the job his tomfoolery would have counted for nothing.  As his interview demonstrated, in the game of politics past personal failures can come back to haunt you and leave you in some very tricky situations.  We shouldn’t hold past events in people’s lives against them for ever, but if old personal weaknesses continue to be allowed to linger, they have a nasty habit of bringing the show down at inopportune moments.  Bill Clinton is a prime example of this with the Monica Lewinsky affair.

If we expect our leaders to act like celebrities, we’re condemning them to act in a superficial way, being forced to perform just to impress us.  Real leadership is so much more than that.  Some leaders are naturally more charismatic than others and if those who find this difficult are unable to engage successfully, they will never be able to inspire us and share their vision no matter how good it is or how much integrity they have.  Great leaders have the rare ability to combine all these elements effectively.  Boris certainly ticks some of the boxes, but only he knows if he has the strength of character, to allow him to reach the top and be remembered for more than his shock of hair and his thoroughly entertaining antics.

Categories: Integrity, Party politics

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5 replies

  1. As always, you have so much wisdom! You are correct that the appointments of Jorge Berlioglione and Justin Welby were very important. THIS IS NOT THE GOLDEN AGE FOR OUR PARTY LEADERS … had the Labour party chosen the correct Miliband, I might have transferred my party allegiance. As a Lib Dem, I am DEEPLY unhappy with Clegg … right now I like Cameron the best of the 3 (never thought I would have said that). OK, none of our 3 main party leaders even make a pretence of being Christians … but BOJO (boris Johnson) is all the more dangerous due to his undeniable charm.

    • Alex – you are right that Labour chose the wrong Milliband and that is part of the problem with the labour party. David was a centrist who didn’t pander to the unions so they did not elect him. Nick Clegg made promises he never thought he would have to keep because he never thought he would come to power. As for Cameron, he is so desperate for the centre ground he has turned on his own supporters and thrown away his moral compass.

      There is something I quite like about Boris on a superficial level but any man who can lie to his wife can lie to the country.

  2. Nice blog piece. Politicians being entertaining is fine up to a point but we need leaders with gravitas particularly as we are facing such serious issues in this country.But maybe we, the voters are to blame – if we spoke out more about how we want our politicians to behave and valued the message rather than the way it was presented then perhaps we could get politicians with the gravitas and depth that we need.

  3. Thank Neville and Alex. It certainly doesn’t feel like a golden age for part leaders, but truly great party leaders are a rare breed and the problem is we have high expectations.


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