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The wit of Bojo

Wednesday 11 July 2018

I find Boris Johnson fascinating ... well, make that ‘appallingly fascinating’, to be more precise. As an example of great intelligence and great charm, combined with an enormous ego and ruthless manipulative skills, Boris – or Bojo for short - is spectacular. I fact, I would campaign that he should be awarded United Nations Representative Human Stereotype status, and preserved in some kind of safe environment. To be clear, safe for him, but also safe for the rest of us.

Bojo’s great skill is language. He handles words like various types of circus performer blended into one – juggler, tightrope walker, trapeze artist, lion tamer, clown. He’s obviously very quick and witty, and has an instinctive judgement of what will make a good headline or a seductive slogan. And yet... some of his most recent turns of phrase indicate, to me, just how dangerous the man is, both to others, and to himself.

First of all, there’s Bojo’s response, in the hearing of EU diplomats, to questions about the worries of UK businesses about Brexit – “Fuck business”. This is certainly concise and pithy and eminently quotable, but it’s not exactly a convincing intellectual argument. More significantly, you have to wonder about the wisdom of saying that, given that Bojo is notoriously ambitious to become the Leader of the Conservative Party ... and one of the major foundations of the Conservative Party has always been that it is the party that represents the interests of Business. (You might like to check the background in this Financial Times article )

And then there’s Bojo’s remark that trying to sell Theresa May’s policy on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union would be like “polishing a turd”. This is wit of a high order. It’s funny, because original and unexpected – have the words ‘polish’ and ‘turd’ ever been used together before? It’s vivid – just try picturing the image. It’s succinct, using just three words – and yet it is acute, conveying an acidic analytical commentary. So, Bojo at his quotable best ... but also note how destructive the witticism is. It undermines the efforts of anyone who tries to support May’s plan, and at the same time undermines whatever interest or respect there might be for the plan among EU negotiators. Who wants to sign up for ‘Project Turd’?

Both Bojoisms mentioned so far seem to have been spontaneous, produced off the cuff in conversation. Bojo’s letter resigning from the Cabinet, however, must be assumed to be carefully drafted for calculated effect. Politician Bojo wanted a memorable slogan, and Journalist Bojo knew that it would be most visible in a single-sentence paragraph early on – resulting in “That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.” The most striking phrase is ‘that dream is dying’ (the dream being Brexit, you understand). But what does this phrase mean? Or rather, what impact was it intended to have, and what does it actually tell us?

The impact is supposed to be both heroic and tragic. In politics, a ‘dream’ is supposed to be a Good Thing, full of ideals and promise and hope (think Martin Luther King) – and if a dream ‘dies’, that should move us to tears and unite us in the dream’s defence. Fine: sounds like a good emotive slogan, working in gut-reaction terms like ‘Take back control’. But language being the complex organism that it is, the word ‘dream’ comes with other connotations: ‘illusion’, ‘delusion’, ‘fantasy’, ‘unreal’, ‘insubstantial’. Compare ‘vision’, ‘plan’, ‘project’ – do these not all sound more... serious? practicable?  To me, ‘dream’ makes Brexit sound pretty flimsy... and ‘is dying’ is such a firm declaration that it sounds grimly final – compare ‘may be dying’ or ‘could die’.

So, while Bojo may have conceived the ‘dream is dying’ phrase as the rallying call for the next phase of his campaign to become Prime Minister, it may actually be communicating how silly Brexit was from the start. Anyone for the Dead Parrot Campaign?


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