As the Prime Minister’s Shakespearean comedy rumbles on, there is still a very real risk that it all might turn to tragedy instead.
Just as Boris Johnson knocked out two conflicting columns on the eve of backing Vote Leave in 2016, there are two starkly different narratives of how his premiership is panning out.
If you are a reader of the Daily Telegraph, or a follower of one of his dwindling bunch of disciples on social media, then version one reads a bit like the script of a Hollywood movie.
In this take, lovable, fish out of water Boris (think a young Hugh Grant) has been thrust into Downing Street at a time of national crisis. Having made a brilliant speech about “belief”, our hero determines to take on the “doubters, the doomsters and the gloomsters” with girlfriend Carrie Symonds (Billie Piper) and his maverick friend Dom Cummings (Ben Wishaw) by his side. An adorable rescue puppy, Dillon (Pudsey the dog), adds a much-needed fairy tale filler to the rather thin storyline.
But all is not well. Boris says he can rescue Britain from doom but, at every turn, he is frustrated by dark forces in league with the paradoxically all mighty and yet supposedly failing European Union.
In Parliament, Marxist villain Jeremy Corbyn (Ian McKellen) plots against him. His own party starts to betray him and even his jealous brother Jo Johnson (Justin Bieber) turns – much as Cain did against Abel. Boris is about to throw in the towel when there’s a knock at the door and the nation’s grandmother Prue Leith (Maggie Smith) is standing there.
Prue makes an inspirational speech about soggy bottoms and Boris realises that, with the help of old chum Rupert Murdoch (Sam Neill), he can still sock it to the elites and save the NHS with that promised £350 million. Will he win an election? Will he fulfil his destiny and become Winston Churchill 2? Will yet another rookie female cop (Cameron Diaz) faint in his presence?
Well, probably not.
But if you bought into that Brexit bus stuff in the first place, you’re quite liable to believe anything. So, for the rest of us, here’s version two. It’s duller. It’s a little less star-studded – but it’s as close to what I think is going on as is possible to muster.
After decades of chancing, cheating and throwing anyone who got in his way under an ersatz Routemaster, the hubristic charlatan Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson finally got the job he had hungered since childhood.
Unfortunately, having been handed the prize, he doesn’t have a clue as to what to do next. He knows he has to rid himself of the Brexit-poisoned chalice that saw off both his predecessors, but doing that is proving very difficult indeed. As the scale of the task facing him has become apparent, someone has clearly suggested adopting a puppy. People love puppies after all and surely it will grab some decent headlines.
But no. Not really. And nor did that appearance at Downing Street by his political strategist Danny Kruger’s mum Prue Leith. After the first few days of buzz and optimism, everything has started going wrong.
Johnson has lost every single parliamentary vote. His threats to his own MPs haven’t worked and, indeed, have proven counter-productive. His supposed ‘wunderkind’ political strategist Dominic Cummings has turned out to be a hapless narcissist, who spends his evenings walking aimlessly around the corridors of Parliament, glass of wine in his hand, haranguing parliamentarians.
Johnson’s every public appearance goes wrong. Crowds boo and shout over the top of his rambling, pointless pronouncements. Police officers faint behind him and, rather than go to their aid – as Obama famously did when a woman felt faint during one of his speeches – he carries on. He’s challenged in the street. He’s lambasted in Parliament. Even his own brother has walked away.
Many of us hoped that, given power, Boris Johnson would swiftly prove himself not up to the job. But the speed of his downfall has been extraordinary.
His brief tenure as Foreign Secretary demonstrated that he was basically incompetent. An egotist with little or no interest in detail who treats politics in the same way he has treated everything else: like it is there to serve him. He expects adoration, but has no actual vision or strategy. His offices of state exist, like everything else, as a platform for his persona.
He might have been able to get away with that as an Oxford University wag, a Telegraph columnist or a contestant on Have I Got News for You. He might even have been able to play the quasi-pantomime role of Mayor of London to a tee. But he’s Prime Minister now – in the midst of a national emergency and can’t ‘wing’ it.
We all needed a good dose of schadenfreude and watching him fail has exceeded all expectations. But, in all the crowing, it’s easy to forget that this unnecessary crisis created on the back of Johnson’s own hubris has real world consequences.
And as this Shakespearean comedy rumbles on, there is still a very real risk that it all might turn to tragedy instead. Johnson’s determination to meet the 31 October Brexit deadline has nothing to do with the UK’s interests. It is all about his own.
And he must be stopped.
If there is one beacon of hope, it is that many parliamentarians have determined to frustrate him and serve country over party and, in his petulant removal of the whip from many of his own MPs, he has helped facilitate his own destruction. It has energised many. Even Corbyn appears to have awoken from his slumber.
There remain tough times ahead. But if, like me, you’ve had some dark moments over the past three years, you might briefly allow yourself a wry smile and a smidgen of optimism – as the Johnson catastrophe blunders on.