Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat. Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission. I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.
The questions included gems like the following:
‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’
‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘
Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either. For some mysterious reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.
It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done. Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him. When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.
Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’
Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this. He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right.. The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out
Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week. He looked and sounded shifty. He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure. One minute he was telling his audience:
“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “
Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it? I don’t understand it at all. But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring
“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’
I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position. Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.
Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary. Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t. After all, you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.
As he sternly reminded his audience:
‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.‘
Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them. It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten. It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.
The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.
That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it. That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud. As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.
He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do. Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.