Boris Johnson and the self-deception of his 'deluded collection of stooges'
The Prime Minister wrote that the most important tactic in politics is to "coddle the self-deception of the stooge."
Way back in 1988, Boris Johnson wrote an essay about how to succeed in student politics.
For the future Prime Minister, the most important tactic was to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” around himself.
He noted that “lonely girls from the women’s colleges” who “back their largely male candidates with a porky decisiveness” were the most useful to him.
However, the most important point was to persuade his dupes, wherever they came from, that he cared about them personally, which he did not.
“The tragedy of the stooge is that . . . he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth,” he wrote.
“The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”
Johnson has kept this lesson close throughout his life
Whereas some politicians work alongside a genuinely close and loyal team of supporters and fellow travellers, Johnson has few genuine allies and even fewer friends.
Instead he has a rolling band of temporary ‘stooges’ some of whom are useful to him for longer than others, but almost all of whom are ultimately disposed of.
However, in recent months this supply of useful stooges has dwindled until now only a small number remain.
Among them are those whose careers most deeply depend on his survival. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, who few sensible Conservative Party leaders would include in their Cabinets, have been sent out on a daily basis to defend the Prime Minister in television studios and Conservative Party WhatsApp groups.
The fact that neither of these individuals are particularly persuasive to begin with is neither here nor there. Nor does it matter if they make even further fools of themselves by defending him. All that matters is that the stooges Johnson chooses to use are willing to play their role. And few have been more willing to do so than Rees-Mogg and Dorries.
The trouble with this tactic of Johnsonism is that - to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher - eventually you run out of other people’s stooges. Whereas a politician who is on the way up can exponentially increase their stock of pliant dupes, a politician who is on the way down does not have the same luxury.
Eventually un-defendable scandal piles on top of un-defendable scandal to the point where even the last remaining stooges leave your side. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the real sign of disaster for Johnson will come when either Dorries or Mogg decide that it’s finally time to spread their wings and fly.
Can Boris Johnson’s stooges save him?
One individual who has reversed the trend and joined the dwindling band of Johnson’s helpers in the past week is the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. As I wrote for Byline Times, her highly suspect intervention in the Downing Street parties scandal has given the Prime Minister a short term reprieve from what had looked to be an imminent leadership challenge.
Tory MPs I spoke to in recent weeks told me that Johnson’s critics had been preparing to submit their letters to the 1922 Committee immediately after Sue Gray’s report was released. This now looks much less likely, given the fact that her report will be stripped of all but the blandest of details, thanks to Dick’s intervention.
However, while this is a setback for those hoping to oust him, Johnson is by no means out of trouble.
Conservative MPs who I spoke to this week told me that a challenge was still overwhelmingly likely, despite Johnson’s efforts to run what is known as a “shadow whipping operation” among his supporters.
This operation, which created a wall of noisy support for him on his backbenches during this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, has been seeking to rally support for Johnson among undecided Conservative MPs.
It has had some success so far. However, one Conservative MP who I spoke to was unconvinced by the apparent newfound support for Johnson.
“He came out [at PMQs] and did his best, which is to say ‘let's not worry too much about the detail or the question. Let's just say what I want to say and let’s bluster on and booster on’. And he does that very well.
“But just because they're shouting loudly for you doesn't mean to say they will support you later.”
The MP pointed to the reception previous leaders had received shortly before being ousted by the party.
“One old saying from the 22 (the 1922 Committee) is that the louder they bang their desks for you, the more you should be worried about what they will do afterwards.”
Down and out?
Whatever happens with the Met investigation and Sue Gray, the fact remains that Johnson has been deeply, and likely permanently, damaged by this scandal.
Unlike scandals that have affected previous prime ministers, this one is not so much a cause of Johnson’s problems as it is a symptom.
His chaotic governing style, his selfishness and his congenital dishonesty were the cause of this disaster and, if he survives, they will be the cause of future disasters too.
And whereas in the past Johnson could rely on a growing number of compliant stooges to get him out of trouble, his very public fall from grace in recent months has left him with with few remaining allies.
Yet this downfall is not a result of Johnson somehow losing his way, but simply the fact that he has finally been found out.
When I first started covering him as London Mayor I would often attend his speeches at various events. Very quickly it became apparent that what at first seemed like off the cuff gags and riffs were actually just the same old reheated lines, used in slightly different formats.
Back then it didn’t really matter. For most people at the events it was their first and only time hearing him speak.
However, after decades in public life and two and a half years in Downing Street, the old tricks that used to work so reliably for him are starting to fail.
This fact has clearly unsettled him. His bizarre ‘Peppa Pig’ speech last year was universally panned as showing that he had somehow lost his way. In reality it was exactly the sort of speech he has always given, with some success, for decades.
It was not the performance that had changed but how it was seen.
The same is true of his wider leadership. It is not that Johnson has changed. It’s just that his audience is now finally starting to see him for who he has always been.
In meetings with Conservative MPs this week, Johnson has insisted that he has done nothing wrong. And the truth is that he probably does genuinely see it that way. After a lifetime of doing exactly as he pleases, with no consequences, it must be bewildering to suddenly discover that this is no longer possible.
Seen from that perspective it probably does feel to Johnson that he has done nothing wrong. Seen through his eyes it probably does feel like the world has changed and not him.
Yet as Johnson wrote back in his student days, in politics perception is often the same as reality. And the reality is that after a lifetime of getting away with it, the Johnson act has now finally run its course.
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