boris johnson

Boris Johnson and the Art of Talking Down

The latest party political broadcast by the Conservative Party is a masterclass in condescension, cynicism, and the art of turning focus group data into votes. Or not. Gary Raymond picks apart the latest Boris Johnson campaign video that may have gone viral for all the wrong reasons.

For a long time, it’s been easy to make fun of Boris Johnson. But thanks to a new party political broadcast video released by the Conservative Party this week, it has never been so easy to laugh at the people who vote for him. In a five minute video that sees the Prime Minister leading us through an open plan office in a promotional film for his election campaign that feels more like a Jet2Holiday advert to the Seventh Circle of Hell, the party of government, the party of stern-headedness, of fiscal responsibility, comes across more as the party of call centre middle managers. In a genre that has rarely offered up much interesting enough to pastiche, this film feels as if it’s heading off potential satirists at the pass, creating a kind of bold meta-ludicrousness. But what the creators hope for beyond hope, is that the central message, “Boris Johnson is one of you”, will cut through the sneering bubble of liberal elites. No, wait, they don’t hope it will, they know it will, because nobody at the Tory campaign office has any doubts about anything.

For those unlucky enough that this video has passed them by, (and who don’t have 4:40 to dedicate to it now) here’s a breakdown.

Johnson begins by coming out of the loo (I think – no sound of a hand-dryer going, so make of that what you will) to be met by the disembodied voice of an office intern asked to “do” a working class accent, which of course when spoken about in the halls of Eton-derived power is always cockney. Or cockerknee. (It’s heart-warming to know that when this election is over, that intern will have a long career as chimney sweep on Cherry Tree Lane). Over the next five minutes or so, the disembodied voice asks the PM a series of unconnected questions, presumably blurted out the same order in which they were brainstormed half an hour earlier in Armando Iannuci’s production office (although I’m sure somewhere lies the pretence these are questions asked by the public). During these questions, Johnson wanders around, seemingly trying to remember where his office is, trying to recapture some of the piss and vinegar of the old Johnson, the one who charmed people into electing him Mayor of London, the Johnson before he started resembling a haunted loaf of bread.

First question is a straight up social media update. What’s been on your mind? Because the Number 10 comms team actually thinks working class people are an algorithm. Johnson replies, slightly worryingly, that he’s been thinking about the election this morning. You have to wonder what he thinks about on other mornings. How Arsenal Athletic are getting on in the cup? Will Scott and Charlene finally get married? Y’know, the sort of thing normal people think about when they get up in the morning. Next, Johnson goes to make his own cup of tea, like normal people do, and makes a point that the first thing he does every morning is take his dog out for a poo. My main concern so far is that our Prime Minister needs an assistant. Or is he, like Trump, encouraged by his underlings to leave the room as often as possible so some real decisions can be made. (“Would you like a cup of tea, Boris?” “I would love one, Dominic.” “Ah good, me too. Two sugars please.”)

The next thing that comes to mind is two questions every member of the electorate should be asked from now on during this campaign: a) would you accept a cup of tea from Boris Johnson? (“The milk is off, Boris… not a details man.”); and b) would you let this man walk your dog? (He’d probably come back with twigs in his hair and your Labrador is now a Cockapoo).

The next questions are very odd indeed, so odd you wonder if anyone was really giving this their full attention when editing and then posting it. When asked if he has found anything incredulous since being PM, Johnson responds that he was dumfounded to discover he couldn’t get a Thai curry delivered through the security system of Number 10. This immediately makes me wonder if the Number 10 security system is racist toward Thai business owners, and if so, why hasn’t the mainstream media picked up on this (conspiracy!); and secondly, did Dominic Cummings then just suggest Johnson goes and picks up the order himself, on his bike? That would have given Team Dom a good hour to sign off on some immigration policies in Johnson’s absence.

The next question, (apparently the obvious lead-on from the question about his experience as PM), is whether he prefers fish ‘n’ chips or a Sunday roast. The famous Dominic Cummings focus group data clicks into overdrive here; which food plays best with the algorithm classes? Well, focus groups show that the “Sunday Roast” has become a predominantly middle class festival, the nuclear family (unheard of in the modern working classes, of course, where most families are headed by single mums) gathering around to eat an organic free range Oxford-educated venison with their John Lewis utensils. Fish ‘n’ chips, however, the focus groups show, are still eaten in the rain on a wall by cockerknees, while they place their spread bets and swat at their multitude of multicultural children. BOOM! Relatable.

Next is some blather about why there’s been a General Election called in the first place. Because Parliament is bad. Something something something. We’re losing them, Boris… who’s your favourite band?!?!?

Here we see a classic pothole into which all, if not most, politicians of the modern era eventually crash. Trying to act as if they have interests like the rest of us. As if they are real people. As if they have souls and hearts and they were once kids with dreams. And this is where we see that Johnson is not delivering a new kind of politics, as the media often claims, but it’s the same old tired rubbish, dressed up in not-all-that-different garb. Enough, though, to dazzle beleaguered journalists who haven’t had a hot meal and a warm bed since Cameron stood on the steps of Downing Street and called the EU Referendum in 2016.

The answer to the question, as if it matters, as if it is anything other than a laughable ocean liner filled to the captain’s chair with horseshit, is “either The Clash or The Rolling Stones”. Of course it is. (Insert eyeroll emoji here). The last thing he wants real people to know is that the closest he ever got to rocking out was to the Band of the Coldstream Guards. Watch out now for snaps emerging on social media of Dominic Cummings, clad in black like the Milk Tray Man, dipping into branches of Waterstones and daubing stickers on the cover of Johnson’s Churchill biography that read: “Fucking Knockout Read” Paul Simenon.

We all remember Theresa May’s skipping through fields of wheat (yes, forever in my mind of nightmarish defaults played out to the music of Sting), but it also feels a lot like David Cameron’s “love” of The Smiths, and Tony Blair reminiscing watching Jackie Milburn from the stands when the centre forward had retired from football several years before Blair was born. Populist rubbish that has never resulted in anything other than ridicule for its peddlers. And yet still there is some twerp in the campaign team that always manages to convince their terrified candidate that it’s not owning any Husker Dü records rather than closing down Accident and Emergency wards is what makes them seem out of touch. What this video stands for – and should be emblematic of – is the difference between dredging for votes and deserving them.

There is so much more to unpick. Take the spine-tingling moment when a campaign office worker with brown skin just happens to pass by and Johnson says hi to him like they’re old buddies (I’m surprised Johnson doesn’t ask him if he wants a cup of tea). Just take a moment to imagine how that little cameo was discussed in the production meeting, and then imagine how the idea was presented to the Asian guy who was identified as the best candidate for the job of “visible brown Conservative”. And then try not to do a bit of sick in your mouth.

Or how about that the poster claiming the Tories will increase police officers by 20,000 is blu-tacked to the wall every ten yards along Johnson’s office circuit, partly suggesting it’s their only policy, and secondly suggesting the minions of Campaign HQ are having real trouble committing the only policy to memory?

Traditionally the party political broadcast has been itself an artful exploration in the wasting of money, a carefully crafted subgenre of the advertising artform that stretched to breaking point the very fabric of dullness. Stories abounded of the legendary celebratory drinking sessions in London’s Soho pubs as the creators of such films, known as “The Sleep Doctors”, prided themselves on how many people they could repel from the front rooms of the nation’s families in the five minutes leading up to Poirot on a Sunday night. But it seems now, with Johnson’s much feted “new style of politics”, we are to see a new form of communication to the great unwashed. No longer will these broadcasts be ignored. They must go viral. Forgetting or a moment that viruses often lead to disease, it’s worth noting two things that the film points toward. Firstly, the campaign comms team, and in this case the head of social media strategy, the Islamophobe Chloe Wesley, are as interested in truth as the rest of the Dominic Cummings machine; and secondly, that Johnson has always been most-effective when unmanaged, that, rather like The Clash, his golden period was long before he hit the big time for which he had always so craved.

Johnson looks more and more like a shadow of his former self. His eyes are hollow, his weight is beginning to look like it’s slowing him down rather than bounding him along, and that smirk is slowly being replaced by the look of a man whose mouth has been glued shut to stop him crying out for help. Johnson has always been a dreadful person. That’s not a slur, it’s a judgement arrived at by a couple of decades of watching his behaviour in public and private life. But watching his campaign so far, you have to wonder if he’s beginning to reach too far beyond the graveyard where he buried his moral compass back in nursery school during the obligatory Conservative Party black mass initiation ceremony. He is beginning to look like a man hollowed out by his own reputation, a cardboard cut-out placed in the shop windows of grifters and charlatans. In the past, the thing with Boris was that he was the show. You can see in this video that he no longer is. He’s no longer the snake oil salesman, he’s the snake oil.

The Cummings campaign machinery has already u-turned on the video. Mocked widely on social media, they have pretended it was always meant to be funny. But if it was, it displays a grasp of satirical humour that I’m not sure has a place on a General Election campaign. Shouldn’t we be laughing with somebody asking for our votes, not at them?

At the end of the film, Johnson gives a limp thumbs up, and wanders off, seemingly half-mumbling to himself. He doesn’t seem sure of where’s he’s going, where he’s supposed to be. He looks like a man off to stare into space for a while until it’s time to make another cuppa.


Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.