If running really stimulates the brain, why hasn’t it rubbed off on our leaders? | Catherine Bennett

Judging by the past form of Truss, Johnson and Cameron, conspicuous jogging ought to be viewed as a red flag in a PM

As with people from Leeds, and the owners of gold circle necklaces, proselytisers of daily jogging may find it takes a while for the contaminating effect of a Truss association to entirely wear off.

For now, any claims about running’s usefully oxygenating effect on the brain, as persuasively advanced last week by Dame Kate Bingham, the vaccine saviour and jogging enthusiast, are likely to be offset by questions of what happened, in that case, to Liz Truss. Along with Leeds and her signature necklace, an ability to run, advertised early with her staged photograph on Brooklyn Bridge, constituted a key component in her personality. Could too much oxygen from excessive jogging have somehow flooded her brain, causing detachment from reality and, finally, total breakdown?

Or was there too little? Does the state of Truss’s brain mean she should have run not once but two or three times a day, 10 or more miles at a time, simply to be able to speak fluently? Even without added mental capacity, it could have kept her out of mischief.

Exactly the same could be said, of course, of the preceding Tory premiers and candidates who (with the exception of Theresa May) also persuaded themselves that making time for conspicuous exercise, in shorts, is perceived not as exhibitionistic time-wasting but as both indicative and generative of their strength as leaders. Thanks to David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Truss, to Michael Gove, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt and the endlessly distressing Matt Hancock, that faintly Putinesque theory has now been tested to destruction. If this country is what happens when successive premiers and ministers publicly oxygenate their brains every morning, then an audience-directed jogging habit should perhaps be recognised in any leadership contender as not just borderline ableist but as a personality red flag. Can’t they stick to Chequers? Why this compulsion to sweat in public?

We should have learned from French commentators who, in 2007, identified Nicolas Sarkozy’s public jogging, unparalleled in a French presidency, as something worse than an undignified assertion of youthfulness by a man whose midlife excitements have blinded him to the sorry reality of his legs (yes, we have witnessed similar delusions in Johnson). One public intellectual, Alain Finkielkraut, contrasted Sarkozy’s exertions (he would later collapse) with the more civilised walking: “The only physical activity that becomes the thinker.” Jogging, on the other hand, “is mere body management, devoid of spirituality or sensitivity”.

Back then, in the days before the health secretary tried parkour, French thinkers had yet to encounter another English phenomenon: politicians who, since they seem not to derive any benefit from regular jogging, cannot even be credited with body management. For Gove, whose greyish Lycra has traumatised more people than I’m sure this newly genial politician would wish, any velocity reportedly subsides as soon as, carrying his key and phone, he is out of photographers’ sight. Johnson (whose visible immunity to the benefits of regular exercise surely warrants scientific investigation) was not above “running” from a car into a hotel.

Other French commentators diagnosed, watching Sarkozy, something peculiarly rightwing about his hobby, even if it was cheap and accessible. “Le jogging est-il de droite?”, Libération asked. Wasn’t there something crudely individualistic about it? That theory, derided elsewhere, was resoundingly endorsed by one Boris Johnson, Telegraph columnist and then MP for Henley. It was time, he wrote, “for all jogging politicians to come to Sarkozy’s aid”. Of course, he said, “jogging is rightwing”: “The very act of forcing yourself to go for a run, every morning, is a highly conservative business.”

I used to think Johnson’s compulsion to show off his body, bare-bellied where possible, resulted from some unusual type of body dysmorphia possibly exacerbated by lifelong satyrism: when he looks in the mirror he genuinely sees, in place of the white flesh piled on piano legs, a man in superb and irresistible shape. It did seem the only explanation for Johnson’s willingness, not long ago, to twit the SNP’s Ian Blackford about his weight.

But what might look like pathological vanity is, for Johnson, a political act, one admittedly of a piece with the enduring Tory delusion that they own – unlike lefty shirkers – the ability to get out of bed. Deliberate attention-seeking by politicians who could choose to use a treadmill is thus a worthy example. “There is the mental effort needed to overcome your laziness,” Johnson explained. “And then slowly the endorphins start to flood into your brain, and the effort gives way to reward, and the deferred pleasure arrives, and you come back home feeling you could bite a tiger...” One potential successor, Penny Mordaunt, would extract similarly instructive lessons from her appearances in a swimsuit for the reality TV show Splash. “You have to be brave in politics… you have to put your head on the block. Just like diving.”

If this accounts for a peculiarly Tory urge to exercise for the cameras, it doesn’t explain how the prime ministers justified the time. Maybe for the famously lazy Cameron and Johnson, the expense of energy that could otherwise have gone into, say, taking a holiday or cobbling together a book, did feel relatively speaking like work. After their example, it seemed unremarkable when Truss spent early mornings – probably totalling a significant percentage of her crisis-struck incumbency – running around Lambeth Palace garden, along with security and selected staff. “She made clear when she started,” reported a still-rapturous Daily Mail, “that she wanted regular exercise sessions to be an intrinsic part of her diary.” Well, at least something went right.

We’ll never know the outcome had they opted for pilates and an exercise bike, but the catastrophic legacy of three performatively jogging prime ministers is enough to indicate caution. Sunak has little otherwise to recommend him, but pending a general election he deserves some credit for so rarely showing us he can run. Or dive.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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