More panto than Pericles. As the curtain comes down early on yet another prime ministerial performance, it’s interesting to reflect on how there are two scandalous and flamboyant “characters” in our national culture who followed the exact same path in their early years – going to school first at Eton and then on to Balliol College, Oxford.
Captain Hook and Boris Johnson.
There are many similarities between JM Barrie’s Edwardian antagonist in Peter Pan Or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, (hmmm) – and the leader about to leave a stage he has dominated for much of the last decade; from City Hall to Downing Street.
They’re both not entirely real, for a start. That is to say, they revel in playing a version of themselves – villain and clown. Their names are not their names. James Hook chose his moniker to mask his high society identity. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became simply “Boris” at university as part of a highly effective brand-building exercise. Hook was renowned as a younger man for his “elegance of diction”, even though he “oozes so unpleasantly through his clothes”.
What’s easy to forget about Hook, however, is his unwavering belief in fair play and following the rules, without which we are nothing. It’s within the games on the playing fields of Eton and at the English public school – a world removed from most of us – where the mythology around a certain type of noble conduct was born. One of our characters absorbed this code as a core tenet of his being. The other entirely rejected it – and our systems based on trust have suffered, possibly beyond repair.
“Good form,” Hook yells, whenever Peter Pan fights fair, and “bad form” when he cheats by flying away or pushing him over the ship’s side at the end. No matter who wins and who loses, being honest is the most important thing, otherwise the game is spoiled for everyone.
Johnson’s many supporters roll their eyes at this puritanism toward conduct and standards in public life – “it’s just Boris being Boris”, and it’s “baked in” to people’s new low expectations of politics. We forget, though, how new and odd it is for this view to come from self-proclaimed Conservatives. This transformation of the strong and stable party over the past three years by a divisive, populist parasite, will be one of Johnson’s lasting influences. The fundamental change to the character of modern conservatism itself.
I happened to be sitting in the Commons press gallery, for Theresa May’s final prime minister’s questions, having been invited by a kind news producer who knew I geeked out on this stuff. I remember the sense of quiet unease, verging on – as one MP put it – the “fearful”. Like the ticking clock inside the hungry crocodile following Hook around. There was a certain dark inevitability about the whole thing, although it’s easy to exaggerate with hindsight.
MPs begged May to pass on some sage advice on the importance of public service to her successor. The Lib Dem Tom Brake MP asked if May would “join me in saying that all politicians should remember the common goals that united people … and must never resort to, nor fail to call out, nationalistic rhetoric which paints others as enemies, victimises minorities, or espouses racism, because if they do, they are neither fit to be a president nor a prime minister?”
We now know these fears, of something sacred being corrupted, did come to pass. We don’t have a written constitution – the assumption being that decent people will handle it with care if you trust them. Yes, sure, technically there is nothing to stop you proroguing parliament illegally, or purging your party of MPs you don’t like, or passing legislation that makes it harder for the public to vote – something previous Tory governments probably fantasised about but never had the shamelessness to actually enact.
No, if you break the law in office, you don’t officially have to resign with honour. And yes, if you want to, I suppose you can normalise the habit of overtly misleading, breaking promises and telling barefaced lies. But once you break the spell, it’s broken for ever.
I’m probably guilty, in my own plays and dramas, of having a naive reverence for some of our political traditions. The absence of a written constitution, for example, creates a system that assumes decency and encourages good behaviour. It trusts that we will handle something fragile with care. Sadly, though his allies may believe Johnson’s recklessness and carelessness were innocent and even necessary in aggravated times, his premiership has exposed the vulnerabilities of this assumption. And we might now just have to write it all down. In short – he’s ruined the game for the rest of us.
“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”, says Barrie in Peter Pan. Johnson certainly had the pixie dust. Voters connected to his “two-thumbs-up” optimism and can-do spirit. His undeniable political skills won over a whole new constituency of voters and a landmark majority (only for this to be wasted in record time). His defenders acknowledge he’s not perfect, and doesn’t pretend to be. That’s why he is so relatable. And there is no doubting he was dealt one of the worst hands of any modern prime minister in the outbreak of the pandemic (except arguably the one he is passing on to his successor).
But even in his handling of the pandemic and the impressive vaccine rollout, the most touted of his successes as prime minister, he fell short, missing the first five Cobra meetings during the early weeks supposedly as he worked on his book about William Shakespeare.
His haters want him to be a black and white villain, but Johnson has no overtly malevolent scheme. He wanted to be king of the world, but he just didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. Great plays – as Johnson will know from the book on Shakespeare he hasn’t finished – require heroes with grand “wants” and objectives – and that’s why he will unfortunately fall abysmally short in the pantheon of great protagonists.
There is a great sense of waste, looking back over the last lost decade, when so much needed to be done, and yet so little was progressed – on energy, housing, equality, wages, social care, the NHS, infrastructure. Post financial crash, we needed visionaries with ambition. You can transform a country in 10 years. Clement Attlee did. Margaret Thatcher did. But you must have a vision beyond yourself.
His decision to break rank and support leave, and the effect that had on swinging the Brexit referendum, means he will still remain the man with perhaps the most significant and lasting impact of any British politician in the modern era – although what that does to the ability of the United Kingdom to hold itself together is yet to be seen. There may yet be a larger legacy coming down the tracks.
In the story, the crocodile catches up with Hook in the end, as his crewmates abandon him. Tick follows tock. On to the next chapter.
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James Graham is a British playwright and television writer. His dramas include The Coalition, Ink and Sherwood