Behind Boris Johnson’s masks

John Gray in New Statesman:

When the interwar Conservative leader and three-time prime minister Stanley Baldwin was asked if any great thinker had influenced him, he replied: “Sir Henry Maine”. The Victorian jurist, Baldwin continued, interpreted the history of society as a grand advance from societies based on hierarchy and status to ones founded on contract and consent: an inspiring vision of human progress. Then, what looked like an expression of puzzlement came over the wily elder statesman’s face. “Or was it,” he asked, “the other way round?”

It is a story worth retelling, for it illustrates the slipperiness of ideas in politics and the guile of politicians in contriving a public image of themselves. An astute, calculating operator, Baldwin presented himself as a bluff, pipe-smoking pig-breeder who ambled into power. Boris Johnson strikes a more elaborate pose. A facade of dishevelled clownery gives the impression he may be impersonating Harold Lloyd, the silent-era movie comedian and stuntman who was shown regularly blundering into deadly peril and miraculously surviving to take the stage again on another day. Look more closely at Johnson and you may glimpse a pensive Charlie Chaplin impersonating Lloyd. Somewhere beneath layers of masks a master shape-shifter is at work, eluding his legions of enemies and entrancing his audience.

A man who takes Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura with him on holiday, as the Prime Minister is reported to have done last year, does not sound given to instinctive cheerfulness. Beneath his boosterish, buoyant persona, one suspects a brooding fatalism. The ancient Roman poet-philosopher taught a cold serenity in the storms of life. The question for Johnson is whether he can withstand a whirlwind of forces he is unable to control.

More here.