While writing his last novel, F Scott Fitzgerald reminded himself of one fundamental truth by putting it in big block capitals: ACTION IS CHARACTER. And through Boris Johnson’s actions what has been exposed over these past few weeks is his character in office.
None of the usual talking points otherwise do justice to the display before us. Not “sleaze”, that quaint 1990s term with its chortlesome memories of David Mellor in a Chelsea kit. Not cod psychology about Dominic Cummings, however thrilled tranches of the press are at the return of their favourite panto villain, alongside his remarkably quotable friends. And certainly not yawping about the lack of “cut-through” by commentators too focused on byelections to see this is squarely about the morality of the man who runs this country.
How else to see a leader who wastes public money doing up one room to hold White House-style press briefings, a vanity project that he scrapped last week? The cost of that one room, by the way, was £2.6m, enough to buy an entire house even in London’s most oligarchic postcodes or, if we’re being boring, to recruit more than 100 newly-qualified nurses. How does one describe the actions of a prime minister who, amid a deadly pandemic, plots with advisers and public officials on how to drum up a reported £200,000 to redecorate his temporary home in Downing Street? This isn’t some fever dream about soft furnishings; it is about who advanced money to our prime minister, and what they may have expected in return, which is why it is now under investigation by the Electoral Commission. From Jennifer Arcuri to a £15,000 winter break in Mustique, every decision smacks of a knowing recklessness and an assurance that the tab will always be picked up by someone else.
Whether or not Johnson bellowed about letting “bodies pile high in their thousands”, his actions helped ensure that outcome. He’s the one who skipped five Cobra meetings a year ago, gave the go-ahead to the Cheltenham festival and to Atlético Madrid playing Liverpool last March, blew £849m of taxpayers’ money on the “eat out to help out” stunt and laughed off scientific advice in order to assure the British public it was their God-given right to eat Christmas pudding together. And here we are, with more than 120,000 excess deaths in England and Wales.
This January, as Covid ripped through the country yet again, I spoke to a nurse who had spent decades working in intensive care. She told me about how her ICU ward had suddenly tripled in size, with row upon row of patients lying in silence, unable to breathe without ventilators. Up to half of them would not leave alive. Others would be sick for the rest of their lives.
“This is Christmas that we’re seeing out here and it should never [have] happened,” she said, after weeks of slaving away for unimaginable hours, comforting teary nurses at the end of their tether, telephoning shellshocked relatives to tell them the worst. “The intensive care world was screaming: ‘Don’t do this. Do not allow people to mix.’”
A chronicler of the first Gilded Age, Fitzgerald would have seen Johnson for what he is. His novels are studded with just his type: men and women so thickly swaddled in money and privilege they can’t see the wreckage strewn behind them. Consult your copy of The Great Gatsby and near the end of that 1925 novel you will find a one-sentence portrait of our 2021 prime minister and his set. “They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
From Bullingdon to Brexit, that has always been Johnson’s style. For years before entering No 10, he tried to convince us that what he did was not who he was. He wore a clown’s nose, all the better to distract from his sneering at “bumboys” and “piccaninnies”. He told tall tales, hoping we wouldn’t mind the casual sprinkling of lies. He sported crusty fleeces and forlorn beanies, while half-joking that the £275,000 a year paid to him by the Telegraph was “chickenfeed”.
When Vote Leave came along, the role of insurgent chieftain was seized upon by this Old Etonian Oxford graduate who’s too posh for John Lewis. Brexit gave him necessary cover to smash up norms and undermine democracy, to prorogue parliament and set the hounds on judges and journalists and remainer MPs. It could all be passed off as being for a great cause.
Only now the fireworks are over, what remains is haggling over the small print on trade deals and the vast emptiness of Johnson’s ambition: his greed for power without the foggiest sense of what to use it for. Pieties about “levelling up” don’t cut it: this is a project without either definition or a policy programme. Its only metric of success will be whether it helps wins Johnson the next election.
People like Johnson have always been around, as Fitzgerald reminds us. The most troubling question is how he came to be prime minister. Part of the answer lies in the sociologist Aeron Davis’s masterly study of the new power elites, Reckless Opportunists. Based on 20 years of interviews with people at the top of Westminster, the City and the media, Davis’s book argues that the new generation of leaders is “precarious, rootless and increasingly self-serving”.
They reach the top sooner, career around scoring headlines or a few million quid, and then lurch off through the revolving door. They have neither ideology nor shame, and their chief legacy is to undermine the very institution they head. It is as true of George “nine jobs” Osborne and David “Greensill” Cameron as it is of Johnson.
What makes this so dangerous is that the UK has cricketing metaphors where a written constitution ought to be. Pit British democracy, with its reliance on good manners and fair play, against a landslide majority won by a smash-and-grab prime minister who drives out permanent secretary after permanent secretary and the fight is hardly fair. Stage it against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which requires decisions to be made without the usual scrutiny, and it stands no chance whatsoever.
Instead you get the VIP lane to provide expensive PPE that turns out to be unusable, texts from No 10 to tycoons offering favourable tax treatment for ventilators and a former prime minister messaging colleagues on behalf of his new employer. The same bunch who pretended to hate the state now try earnestly to leech off it. Careless people, as Fitzgerald portrayed them, although he could add one qualification. They care a lot – just not about you and me.