Boris Johnson and the Political Tool of Personality

Tom Taylor analyses the public persona of Boris Johnson, and suggests what Keir Starmer can learn from the former Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson lives in the public eye. This is a trait he embodies; his recent abandoned pursuit of the Conservative leadership could be interpreted as an attempt to keep himself at the forefront of Britain’s political landscape. The media appearances he has made throughout his career could be similarly deciphered as ways to ensure a headline never evades him. Yet, to live so publicly and still thrive in politics takes a certain set of attributes, attributes which Johnson uses deftly. 

There is a video online, uploaded onto the Voices from Oxford YouTube channel, which see’s Johnson in conversation with Sir Drummond Bone, the then Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in which the two talk in relation to one of Johnson’s lesser-known works; Life in the Fast Lane: The Johnson Guide to Cars. The duo ponder on the key role vehicular development played in female emancipation and it see’s Johnson talk more floridly, intellectually and pragmatically then he normally has done. It is in the second video, however, in which the most stark contrast between the true Johnson and the political Johnson is visible. This difference isn’t insinuated nor does it lie below the surface, but it is directly addressed by both Johnson and his interviewer, the biologist Denis Noble. It concerns his perceived reputation amongst the populace as a ‘babbler’, a label Johnson immediately refutes. Although Johnson does fall foul to speech errors (such as ‘err-ing’) in his public speaking, one cannot help but think that these are conscious errors, utilised to select the correct language to illustrate his point yet still appeal to the masses as a likeable, affable and relatable character. His speech errors when speaking to Noble, nonetheless, appear unconscious, as if Johnson is searching for the correct words to demonstrate his ideas on an intellectual level, rather than a political level. This video also demonstrates Johnson’s ability to speak in depth on a range of issues, such as international airports, demonstrating the high level of intellectual ability necessary to seamlessly flick between topics whilst still speaking competently and coherently. The latter points at the idea that Johnson consciously shifts his linguistic demeanour depending on his audience; adopting his natural self when talking amongst peers, such as the intellectuals at Oxford, whilst becoming a more parodied version of himself in politics. The use of embodying almost a caricature of himself allows the public to understand him not as a faraway political figure, who followed the well-trodden path of Eton, to Oxford, to Conservative party politics, but as a well-meaning and related figure, who stumbles over his sentences like anybody else would. But Johnson isn’t anybody else - he is exceptionally intelligent and although his actions as Prime Minister makes this point problematic, his deft use of language and self-characterisation as a political tool does exemplify this. 

The point of this article is not to flatter Johnson, I believe his tenure as Prime Minister to have been significant in destabilising British politics to the farce it subsequently became, but to evidence a key attribute of his which can be utilised by others. Sir Keir Starmer is often accused of lacking charisma, a critique never levied at Johnson, and this is for good reason. Starmer, although clear in his choice of language, brings to his public speaking a legalistic approach, which leaves his speeches lacking energy and zeal. Johnson’s use of idioms, metaphors and the aforementioned conscious speech errors ensures his speeches are emotive and, unfortunately for his political enemies, engaging. His ability to be personable also allows him to get away with the multitude of choice comments he has made in the past: take his old Daily Telegraph columns as an example. If Starmer were to embody his old Commons counterpart's use of character, maybe we could be looking at a new Prime Minister in the not so distant future.

Tom Taylor is a writer, with award-winning pieces detailing the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Nagorno-Karabakh war. He is also a proud Mancunian and History student. He tweets at @tomwstaylor

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