Boris Johnson: The Churchillian Maverick

Andrew Thorpe-Apps compares two great Conservative mavericks.

There has been much talk of Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministerial ambitions. The question to be asked is: What would a Boris Premiership be like? He is undoubtedly an eccentric, yet Johnson keeps coming up with stonking ideas for London and seems to be ‘in touch’ with ordinary people. These are qualities that are also attributed to arguably Britain’s greatest Prime Minister – Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.

Boris Johnson is comfortably the most popular politician in Britain today. He speaks his mind and fights fiercely for London. Whereas Cameron, Clegg and Ed Miliband look alike, and focus on honing their managerial styles, Johnson is like something from another age. As with Churchill, Boris Johnson has an oratorical power and physical presence that leaves his contemporaries standing.

There are many similarities between Churchill and Johnson, two great exhibitionists of their respective ages. Boris was born in New York, and Churchill’s mother was American. Both began their careers as journalists. Indeed, both continued to write during their rise up the political ranks. Churchill was in Cuba in 1895, reporting on the Spanish fight against Cuban guerrillas. He also worked as a correspondent in the Sudan and South Africa. Boris Johnson was editor of the Spectator and retains a column for the Telegraph. Winston continued to write newspaper articles during his political career, and also wrote many books, as has Boris.

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As is true of Johnson, Churchill had a love of painting and used it as a form of escapism. Churchill was famous for the trademark cigar, whereas Johnson has his trademark hair. Churchill was also famous for his sharp wit and quoting of verse, and Boris too is renowned for his comical quips, verbose rhetoric and bumbling demeanour.

Both men began as liberals. Churchill left the Conservatives to join the Liberals, and then returned. Boris was briefly an SDP supporter whilst at Oxford, but has always really been a One Nation Conservative. Furthermore, both men are outsiders within the Conservative Party. Boris has never been part of the Party establishment, nor is he easily associated with any particular faction. Churchill described himself as neither Tory nor Liberal, aristocrat nor democrat. Both he and Boris are, first and foremost, statesmen.

As was true of Churchill, Johnson is distrusted by many Conservatives, a number of whom believe he is consumed by an ambition to become Prime Minister. Boris was often given the ‘cold shoulder’ when he was an MP because his fame provoked jealously and he was considered too much of a handful. When revelations about his extra-marital affairs went public, colleagues were quick to stick the boot in, and he was sacked. David Cameron famously remarked: ‘What do you do about a problem like Boris?’ Churchill’s early warnings about German militarisation were ignored by many Conservatives. He was considered to be an attention-seeking warmonger who liked the sound of his own voice.

Churchill, like Johnson, was known for his unorthodox dress sense. He once startled troops on a ship by walking around wearing only a dressing gown, without underpants. When Churchill did wear underpants, he favoured pale pink silk ones, and some visitors to his home had the pleasure of meeting him in only pink underpants. His bow ties were generally tied in odds ways, sometimes lop-sided, bulky, tiny or even perpendicular.

Johnson – the despair of any barber – is similarly often seen with his tie askew. He was once snapped jogging in baggy silk shorts (put on back-to-front) with a dragon motif, and sporting a pair of mismatched socks. As Sir Max Hastings noted: ‘Boris isn’t pretending to be chaotic; he really is utterly chaotic’.

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Yet the British find Boris’s laissez-faire approach to grooming endearing. There is no hint of vanity about him. Wearing a pair of odd socks is, after all, not the end of the world. It points to a man (and this may be a clever calculation on Johnson’s part) whose focus is substance, not style. This is in deep contrast to the slick, manicured figure of David Cameron. Even when he goes jogging, Cameron is neat and colour-coordinated. The Prime Minister will not allow himself to be pictured drinking champagne or wearing tails – image is everything.

Boris Johnson, like Churchill before him, is a loveable eccentric and maverick. He is near impossible to embarrass and has a huge armoury of witty reposts at his disposal. The British public today are ironic, eclectic and fusion-loving. Boris is one of the few politicians built in the same way. He may have the posh accent and classical education, yet there is something unmistakably ‘cool’ about his celebrity persona. As conventional politics is met by increasing apathy and distrust, the public are looking for change. Johnson makes people feel good – he oozes positivity and confidence. Despite his privileged background, he seems to understand the suffering of ordinary folk far better than his contemporaries. Boris has the sort of appeal that transcends normal politics.

The Conservative Party did not want Winston Churchill as leader. But, ultimately, it had to have him because he spoke ‘common sense’ and was popular with the masses. A strong leader was needed to replace the perceived inadequacy of Neville Chamberlain. Today, the country is troubled by economic woes, rather than military ones. But if public confidence in David Cameron’s leadership wanes, and the Conservatives lose in 2015, we may well see a Churchillian return.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Andrew a really interesting take on Boris he is a very bright guy and a man the Tories should not take advantage of

  2. Hmm, I think the comment above may have been misplaced…

    As for Boris, I don’t mean to play down his talents – he is a skilled and charismatic politician, a good writer and speaker. It’s hard not to find him likeable. And as you say, he shares with Churchill that he’s something of an independent-minded maverick whose career owes more to personal popularity than party loyalty.

    But there are also important differences. One was noted in the recent documentary by Ken Livingstone of all people. Now, Ken is hardly a neutral or independent commentator, but I think he hit on something true: Boris’ weakness as a politician is that he wants too much to be liked. All politicians do, of course, but to succeed you also have to sometimes be prepared to make people angry in order to do the right thing. Boris has rarely shown much sign of being willing to take such unpopular stances. In contrast, before becoming PM Churchill was Home Secretary, a position where you can’t fail to piss people off (as indeed he did). And say what you like about Cameron and Osborne, you can’t deny they’re willing to let themselves be hated. I’m not entirely convinced that Boris would ever want to make himself so unpopular.

    Maybe I’m underestimating him; maybe, as with Churchill, there will be some circumstances that make Boris seem like the right man for the time. But what could they possibly be – what is the question to which Boris is the best answer?

  3. As I understand it, the NRA’s argument for being able to own guns mirrors the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. They claim crime will be less, due to the fact that anyone may be in possession of a weapon. Gun ownership is a strong deterrent.

    Though there is probably some truth in the NRA’s argument on this score, the statistics relating to US gun deaths are so extreme in comparison to other ‘western’ countries that it is clear that change is needed. A carpet ban on firearm ownership will not be achievable (nor would it be desirable). It is important to keep in mind the context of life in the United States – we cannot simply say that British gun control has worked and should, therefore, be transposed across the Atlantic.

    In the United States, there are roughly 90 guns to every 100 people. In the United Kingdom, there are around 6 guns to every 100 people. Americans understandably feel vulnerable and sense a need to protect themselves. This is why expanded and comprehensive backgrounds checks are an important way forward for the US.

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