I am besieged by media folk asking when I shall make good on a four-year-old threat to flee to Buenos Aires should Boris Johnson become prime minister. How can I get on to a flight, I ask, when so many other voters are already wait-listed? In truth, however, we are being served successive courses in a national banquet of self-harm, too grisly to merit jokes. Nobody should blame Johnson for wanting to be prime minister: many unsuitable people do. But there will be infinite historical curiosity about how the Tory parliamentary party could scramble to deliver Britain into the custody of a man whom few of its members would entrust with their wallet, handbag or spouse, save to secure a cabinet seat. A year or so back, I asked a sensible MP what could stop BoJo becoming prime minister, granted his mile-high profile. My companion answered: ‘Nobody in the House likes him.’ Beneath the veneer of Johnsonian geniality, colleagues recognise the egomania that precludes concern for the interests of any human being save himself. Yet now those same Tories seem poised to hand him Downing Street; Brexit; the nuclear deterrent; power to fulfil his promises to raise spending, cut taxes, and give Johnny Foreigner a damn good thrashing.
Jeremy Corbyn provides most of the explanation, together with the absence of star quality in any leadership rival save Rory Stewart. Boris is thought to have a popular appeal transcending age and class, unimpaired by his refusal to disclose how many children he has. He is among the wittiest and most brilliant performers of the age, a conjurer who finds words to please any audience, heedless of their distance from truth or reality; who does feel-good like no other contemporary politician: Boris would have assured Titanic passengers that rescue was imminent, even as water lapped the boat deck. A female fan said on the radio recently: ‘He will make politics fun.’ She could be right. In an era when Britain esteems comedians more highly than footballers, it may be appropriate for us to be governed by a prime minister who will attend state banquets in cap and bells, rather than white tie. But not even the Corbyn peril can blackmail my kind of one-nationer into voting for a government headed by Johnson, endorsed by Donald Trump and bear-led by the European Reform Group.
Since I started writing Chastise, a book about the RAF’s 1943 dambusting operation, everybody over 40 asks me the same uneasy, giggling question: ‘What are you going to say about the dog?’ They are obsessed with the politically incorrect, mostly-black labrador owned by Guy Gibson, who won a VC leading the attack on the Mohne and Eder dams. When I discussed this with the airman’s biographer, the enchanting Richard Morris, he observed: ‘There is a PhD thesis to be written about Nigger and British identity.’ My answer to the dog question is that it is no more embarrassing to mention its name in a historical narrative than the fact that our ancestors hanged sheep stealers and imprisoned homosexuals.
Speaking of homosexuals, the recent biopics we have most enjoyed are Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man, which convince me that I have shaken off the mild homophobia of my youth, perhaps inspired by the fact that no bloke ever made a pass at me. The films also made me reflect about my own life, obsessively focused upon writing. I am ignorant of huge swaths of human affairs, starting with sport, science and popular culture. Though I might fare well enough in a literary or historical quiz, until seeing the two movies I could not have identified a Freddie Mercury or Elton John tune. Had I broadened my range a few decades ago, I could have become a better dinner companion.
We spent an idyllic two days walking the streets of Ravenna; contemplating Byzantine mosaics; basking in Italy. Here is a country in a state of chronic political paralysis, of which the inhabitants contrive acceptable lives. Perhaps this is our own destiny — to be ruled by weak governments incapable of addressing education, welfare, NHS funding, productivity, infrastructure, control of non-EU immigration, credible defence policies — yet amid which most British people will meander onward, not noticing themselves becoming relatively poorer. Such an outcome would be preferable to governance by a fantasist prime minister who seeks to fulfil his threat to ‘put the Great back into Britain’; invites us to sing ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ as he lights a cigar and makes V signs across the Channel.
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