Friday, 29 November 2013

Thickgate - the floppy-haired dog that didn't bark

I'm not sure that I agree with this analysis of Boris Johnson's skillz - 'In his recent speech, Boris Johnson demonstrates a first-class mind - such a mind being one that tells its audience what it wants to hear.'

As far as I can judge, tailoring your message to what your audience wants to hear is merely an entry-level requirement for being a politician - a skill that separates those engaged people who actually get themselves elected to positions of power from the ones who just shout at random strangers in the street, or write huffy blog posts about the state of the world.*

What elevates Boris Johnson from being merely an average politico has less to do with him adjusting what he says to fit his audience's prejudices than with his ability to turn himself into a resilient brand. Consider what happens to politicians who lose control of their self-branding. In a disputed incident, former Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell was alleged to have unguardedly called police officers 'plebs.' I don't know whether he used that word or not, but the mere suspicion that he had was enough to destroy his brand and force his resignation.

Mitchell only had to be suspected of being an out-of-touch elitist, sneering at ordinary people, to be ejected from his job and to gain the dubious distinction of having a "gate" attached to his troubles. Over a year after that brief incident, "Plebgate" is still a thing.

Compare and contrast with that indisputably privileged member of the elite, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who can get away with saying that if you're not rich, it's probably because you're thick. And say it in a scripted, rehearsed speech delivered to a audience, with reporters in attendance and without even the excuse of being provoked by an (allegedly) obstructive jobsworth at the end of tough day in the office.

Will people still be talking about "Thickgate" in a year's time? Almost certainly not. Concerted demands for the mayor's resignation are conspicuous by their absence, as are apologies, or furious denials. There's just a cross headline in the Mirror, a bit of teasing in the Mash and some tut-tutting from Nick Clegg, whose own political brand is so borked that his disapproval has all the stopping power of a limp lettuce leaf. It'll all be forgotten in a week. Real power means never having to say you're sorry.

In fact, never mind being sorry, the usual suspects were even able to praise the mayor's 'knack for the arresting phrase' and commonsensical reiteration of 'what everyone outside the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought already thinks anyway', without apparent embarrassment.

All this for a speech that could be reduced to the cretinous taunt 'if you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?', without much loss of meaning, subtlety or coherence. It doesn't take a first-class mind to flatter a tribal audience with partisan platitudes. It does take a first-class mind (or a first-class team, to give due credit to the publicists, speechwriters and assorted public relations professionals responsible for creating and operating the lovable animated character known as Boris™) to create a larger-than-life media personality  who can say things that would get lesser politicians sacked, then shrug them off almost effortlessly.

Unlike the hapless Godfrey Bloom, Johnson and his team have learnt the art of political kung fu. Instead of trying to resist the things that might floor them, they roll with them. Where Andrew Mitchell pushes with all his might against the accusation that he might ever use an elitist word like "pleb", the members of Team Johnson have embraced their man's privileged background to manufacture a genial, tousle-haired, Bertie Wooster-meets-Brideshead Revisited Great British Eccentric™ who says 'gosh' a lot. We'd be no more surprised or shocked to hear that Boris™ had used the "P" word** than we would to find out that his life was organised by an urbane manservant who was forever getting him out of comic scrapes. Boris™ seems more or less invulnerable to attack - to watch facts, criticism and anger slide off his 'lighthearted' persona is to watch the smoothest political operator we've seen in these islands since Teflon Tony lost his non-stick coating.

It's an impressive display of style over substance and, so far, it's proved almost as tough for Johnson's opponents to separate what he actually says from his carefully-cultivated cuddly persona as it has been to separate the destructive activities of his City gambling chums from the socially useful bits of the financial system. It takes a first class-mind to generate the sort of useful confusion that lets you declare a cynical, corrupt, failed and bailed financial system to be some kind of triumphant success story, praise the people who crashed and burned it as demigods before whom we are unworthy, insult anyone too poor or powerless to answer back, then walk away, not just unscathed, but with your reputation as some kind of national treasure apparently intact. What a piece of work.

*OK, I plead guilty as charged.

**And not just in his capacity as a classicist.