Levelling down.

AuthorLittler, Jo

Robert Saunders's article takes Johnson seriously, casting him as 'the most powerful Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher', and asking what shape his Conservatism takes. Does it represent something completely new, a populist English nationalist party, led by a revolutionary bounder who is anything but Conservative, he asks? Saunders suggests not, noting that he draws on a variety of Tory traditions and prime ministerial personas, including Disraeli's anti-cosmopolitan populism, Churchill's bombastic lack of loyalty to his own party and Macmillan's theatrical doddering. Citing Johnson's ideological promiscuity - which has veered from a selective 'championing of immigration' and anti-Trump rhetoric as Mayor of London, through the racist mockery of Obama and border mania as Brexit campaigner, to the flagrant disregard for parliamentary rules as Prime Minister - Saunders argues that Johnson's great skill lies 'in holding together divergent materials than in giving them new direction': to both have his cake and eat it. Or, to extend the metaphor: we could say he wants to have, and to eat, many different kinds of cake, whilst taking over the bakery and firing half the staff.

The article is particularly astute in observing the rhetorical strategies and chameleon pragmatism of Johnsonism: at the 'rhetorical flares' sent up to 'awe and amaze' and distract us; at noting that, unlike the widespread political norm of performing sincerity, Johnson's MO is to 'perform insincerity'. His rhetorical exaggeration, comic phrases and knowing looks means that, as Saunders puts it, 'No other politician breaks "the fourth wall" as consistently as Johnson, inviting the public to be in on the joke of his own performance'. This is all true, and brilliantly observed. Yet we can of course also note other dimensions and contexts for the popularity of such a persona. I suggest that it is useful to supplement Saunders's account by, firstly, considering the wider global neoliberal political context which produces these characteristics, alongside the Tory tradition; and, secondly, by emphasising how these particular characteristics are moulding the political and cultural economy of the present.

For Johnson's performance of buffoonery and knowingness does not work merely, as Saunders puts it, 'to distract from the emptiness': it is a performance of 'anti-politics', a way to tap into popular discontent with 'Politics'. It can clearly be related to the rash of populist...

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