Bluffing Boris Johnson: Determined to Prove a Villain

If you are surprised at how the story of Johnson as prime minister has gone so far, I’m surprised you are surprised. This endless cycle of reckless, destructive bluffing shouldn’t be a shock. Bluff and mind bending inconsistency is what got him where he is (and us where we are).

This pattern goes a long way back. One of his biographers, Sonia Purnell, tells of a legendary episode, repeated in various forms. At Eton (?) Johnson starred as Richard III (a play about scheming, ruthless usurper pretending to be charming, of course). He failed, however, to learn his lines and so, depending on the story, he either sellotaped the script to a nearby post, continually running back to them, or simply made up his own. This could be a wonderful example of his charisma and intelligence shining through in a crisis (and the head of Eton did say he was the most intelligent pupil he had known). Equally, it’s a perfect portrait of his destructive egocentrism. Imagine being the parent of a child in a minor role, who had learnt their lines, forced to see an ill-prepared young Johnson bluffing and ad-libbing, believing his words were better than Shakespeare’s. Whatever the truth, it’s either Johnson nimbly capering to glory or determined to prove a villain. Lately, he is much more the villain.

This continual reckless bluffing was his route to high office. Being mayor was perfect for a bluffer like Johnson, with little power but huge opportunities for promises and PR. Many believe he bluffed his Euroscepticism in the Leave campaign (others think he bluffed his earlier euro enthusiasm).

You can argue that the political character of Johnson itself is one huge bluff. According to Purnell, he used to excuse his lateness as hangovers, though he rarely drinks. He appears in public as disordered and off the cuff but actually isn’t-see this story of when Jeremy Vine caught him at it twice. His famous comment to Jeremy Clarkson that ‘you can’t rule out the possibility that beneath the elaborately constructed veneer of a blithering idiot, there lurks an, er, blithering idiot’ is masterly, a brilliantly layered set of bluffs. He ruffles his hair before he goes on camera. One could speculate, at leisure, what drives it (this piece does a great job). Johnson could be bluffing himself.

But one undeniable truth amid all this is that he bluffed his way to Downing Street. Since in office, the reckless bluffing has continued, if not accelerated. He has tried to bluff the EU, and bluff his own party (his threat to sack rebel MPs was, I’d argue, a bluff gone wrong). He had, until the Supreme Court ruling, tried to bluff the constitution, though the constitution was having none of it.

Whether he bluffed the Queen is still unclear. The Supreme Court left it ambiguous, though there is something, to me, of the ‘you may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment’ about what was written in the judgment:

We know that in approving the prorogation, Her Majesty was acting on the advice of the Prime Minister. We do not know what conversation passed between them when he gave her that advice. We do not know what conversation, if any, passed between the assembled Privy Counsellors before or after the meeting. We do not know what the Queen was told and cannot draw any conclusions about it.

If he didn’t lie then he did, as Richard Nixon supposedly put it, ‘say something that later turned out to be untrue’.

Even the appointment of Dom Cummings, who reads a book a week, was a bluff meant to scare his opponents. It seemed to work for a few days with lots of (male) commentators tweeting gushingly about OODA loops and MIG valleys. However, all these fancy Immelmann turns have landed Johnson on the wrong side of the Supreme Court. People sometimes refer to Cummings as Rasputin, seemingly oblivious to what happened to Rasputin and the regime he supported, as Boney M. pointed out with such rhythm and historical accuracy.

The problem for Johnson is that being PM is hard to bluff. When Johnson’s bluff meets details and formal rules his plans often come apart. Interestingly, he’s hit these sort of barriers before. He failed to bluff a first when he was at university and again as a journalist. Now too, the conflict of interest rules as mayor could be coming to bite him back, especially if his opponents obey Christopher Hitchen’s golden rule to ‘follow the money, not the lipstick’.

But is Johnson necessarily doomed to be exposed? What happens, in the end, if the truth will out? The latest Johnson looks a lot less like the happy-go-lucky Mayor and far more ‘subtle, false and treacherous’. Every Conservative MP has a ‘borrow from the far right’ moment, from Thatcher’s ‘swamped by an alien culture’ to Cameron’s ‘swarms’. Johnson got his in early with his ‘surrender’ and ‘humbug’ combination. Even exposing yourself as an out and out user of violent, toxic language doesn’t seem to count for Johnson. Being totally, brazenly inconsistent can be a strength not a weakness (see Trump and even worse, at least before this week).This is especially the case when you have a supportive press, which Johnson still has today.

Where does all this bluffing end up? We can’t hold out hopes that any ghost will visit his tent on the eve of battle, though his nerve can fail him, as it did in 2016 when he was severely out-bluffed. One thing to keep in mind is that when in a tight spot Johnson likes to opt for the ultimate bluff: resignation. Time after time as a journalist, he pushed a resignation threat when in trouble, layered with grandiose offers to take a retrospective pay cut. Purnell says this ‘seems like a death wish’ but often worked. In fact, you could class Johnson as a bit of a serial resigner, stepping down from a newspaper, the Shadow Cabinet and the Cabinet. Could Johnson’s ultimate, riskiest bluff to be to threaten to step down as PM?

I’m an academic at Birkbeck College, University of London. All views and thoughts my own.