Few politicians can hope to have a book published of their pithy one-liners and sage advice. For 99 per cent of them, the sum total of their “wit and wisdom” can be written on the back of a postage stamp. But Boris is different. The Mayor of London is not just a little bit cleverer and funnier than his peers across the Thames. He’s in a different league.
He needs to be, too, given his proclivity for getting into trouble. As Harry Mount points out in his excellent introduction, Boris uses his humour to deflect criticism and make light of mistakes that would end the careers of lesser men. In particular, he’s the master of the eccentric, amusing apology, which, according to Mount, “works like a sort of bulletproof armour”.
A good example – and a topical one – is Boris’s comparison of the Conservative Party to the natives of a certain Pacific island.
“In the Tory Party we have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing,” he said in 2006.
He then quickly followed up with one of his trademark expressions of regret: “I mean no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us. I’m happy to add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apologies.”
Another device Boris uses to disarm his critics is to pretend to be a bit befuddled when, in reality, he knows exactly what’s going on. One of the virtues of this book is that it contains other people’s remarks about the great man, as well as his own. Daniel Hannon, the Tory MEP, sums up the advantages of this Bertie Wooster-ish disguise: “He’s brilliantly worked out that English people don’t like clever intellectuals, particularly in the Conservative audience he wants to appeal to. There’s a smooth machine under the buffoonery. It’s not an exaggeration to call him a genius.”
Not everyone shares this view. One of the funniest quotes in the book comes from Ian Hislop, who has often shared a television studio with Boris on Have I Got News For You: “People always ask me the same question, they say, 'Is Boris a very, very clever man pretending to be an idiot?' And I always say, 'No.'”
Boris’s best trick is what Mount calls his “mock seriousness”. As Stuart Reid, a former colleague of Boris’s, points out, “when he makes a political pitch, there is always an element of satire in his words and manner”. It is this, above all, that makes him stand out as so unlike other, run-of-the-mill politicians.
Most MPs make the mistake of trying too hard to sound sincere and, as a result, they come across as a bit fake and inauthentic. The ordinary voter reacts badly to this because it’s as if the politician in question is taking them for a fool. [Itals] Does this knave really think I’m so stupid that I can’t see through him? [Itals]
Boris does the opposite. Rather than try and appear sincere, he’s openly insincere. Instead of toeing the Conservative Party line, he makes a pretence of trying to stay on message and then forgetting what the message is. The reason the public respond so well to this bumbling routine is because it’s Boris’s unique way of signalling his respect for them. By not trying to pull the wool over their eyes, he’s acknowledging that they’re too shrewd to be fooled by a scurvy politician.
Harry Mount has done a great job of trawling through Boris’s articles and speeches to find the best bits. All the greatest hits are here, from his apology to the people of Liverpool to his transparently false claim that he’s not interested in the Conservative Party leadership: “I have more chance of being reincarnated as an olive.”
My only quibble with Mount is with his description of the phrase “an inverted pyramid of piffle” as “inventive”. In fact, he lifted it straight out of a Kingsley Amis book. As the American critic Lionel Trilling said: “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”