In this file photo, outgoing Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks down at the podium as he attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London. Johnson has officially resigned as Conservative party leader, paving the way for a successor to replace him as British prime minister Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS /POOL/ AFP
By Chris Chivers
Boris Johnson was a contemporary at university. We both came from very different backgrounds.
I was a grammar school boy whose parents had not completed their school education and was the first from my family to go to any university, let alone Oxford while Boris was a privileged Etonian, obsessive socialite and rich boy.
Boris was clearly able. He was a witty speaker.
His speeches were littered with classical allusions and still are.
He won all the top prizes for classics at Eton.
His hair embryonically untidy even then.
I remember him well from the Oxford Union debates.
But I must confess. I don’t remember a single thing he said.
Unlike Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who now faces Boris across the dispatch box in the British House of Commons week by week, Boris didn’t have any overarching themes back then.
What he produced was a mix of bonhomie and buffoonery that saw him entertain his fellow undergraduates who all recognised his charisma, if not his lack of values and policies.
His persona was also that of cheap gags, gales of laughter and an ability to beat his contemporaries in debates.
Like another contemporary, former UK British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was not a student politician – Boris was not really interested in policy enough to dirty his hands with it.
He was merely part of the Johnson socialite circle.
Michael Gove, who has since been sacked as a cabinet minister in the dying hours of Johnson’s rule, was another grammar school boy and direct contemporary.
Johnson and Cameron recognised his considerable abilities – and both exploited them to the fullest. But the likes of Gove and I were always fodder for posh-boy sneering.
The only thing that has always mattered to Boris – and to Cameron, who got there first as Prime Minister, has been how to win office and not what to do with it.
Take the book titled The Oxford Myth for instance.
It was written by Rachel Johnson – Boris’s sister and edited in 1988 a year after Johnson left Oxford.
In the book, Boris penned a chapter on politics.
Everything about who he was and still is, is all there except he doesn’t he didn’t mention anything to do with policy. There’s nothing about how to change society. Nothing about shaping the world.
He does however make a suggestion that students don’t tend to favour ‘the purest, most naked politics, stripped of all issues except personality and ambition’ – ironically, the kind in which Johnson has always specialised.
Depressingly, in retrospect, the whole focus is on personality and ambition in order to win office.
It’s about getting yourself noticed, buttering people up, making yourself known and liked by your contemporaries.
Garnering votes and enjoying the moment of victory when, inevitably, this comes. This has always been the sole object of politics in the Johnsonian universe.
All the seeds of what followed – the immense self-regard, the almost total narcissism – were there.
We all knew it then.
It defies belief that for three decades, through sackings for lying as a journalist, duplicitous turn-coating on the Brexit issue, the political class colluded with a man who has always been and always will be an absolute charlatan.
What does all this suggest?
A which certainly transcends the British context and surely speaks to the ‘farm gate’ situation around South African President Cyril Ramaphosa right now being namely a crisis in global political leadership.
The answer here must lie in a grass-roots reclaiming of policy itself.
The political class of every political shade – is quite simply bankrupt.
The irony here is that in his last days before he officially resigned today – Johnson has kept banging on about ‘getting the job done’.
But he has had no idea what this consists of because he’s had no real policies.
Get the job done has been just all flannel and this is as true in the UK as it is elsewhere.
What passes for political debate in our societies is too often merely a shouting match, a pooling of ignorant ranting with little actual substance.
Communities are not transformed by this. They are paralysed.
They need real ideas developed and owned by communities themselves.
It is to be hoped that the honesty, truthfulness, integrity and standards lauded by the many ministers whose resignations precipitated the end of Boris – but who had all been content to collude with him and prop him up, sometimes for years – can be translated into something real for communities during times of economic and post-pandemic turmoil, and heightened international tension.
Politicians everywhere must wake up to the truth that politics is about policy not personality. It’s about leaders remembering that they are always also followers, seekers after the truths that can unite us all.
Chivers was Precentor at St George’s Cathedral Cape Town, South Africa. He now teaches at UCL Academy in London.