Boris Johnson is toeing a delicate line.
On the face of it, his burka looking like a letterbox comment (if you don’t know what I’m on about, then I doubt you even know who Boris Johnson is, so maybe hold off and wait to read tomorrow’s blog instead) is an enormous dose of bad PR given the amount of outrage it seems to have generated.
However, Johnson isn’t averse to a bit of outrage. He’s been dishing out dangerously ‘colourful’ comments for years, all of which are carefully managed as part of his persona.
His bumbling, whoopsadaisy, oh silly me, image is constructed to further his political aims. By seemingly ‘putting his foot in it’ (or rugby tackling a Japanese child), Johnson gets widespread press coverage, which keeps him firmly in the public eye. He’s easily one of the most well-known politicians in the country, if not the most.
The burka ‘joke’, made over a week ago, is still being talked about in the news, to the extent that reporters were camped outside his house over the weekend. True to his image, Johnson emerged to greet the waiting press with cups of tea – a quintessentially British act, which embellishes his apparent foppish, old school English charm.
His blundering public character though, is underwritten by razor sharp intelligence, as evidenced by a degree from Balliol College, Oxford (albeit a 2:1, admittedly). All of his actions, seemingly off the cuff, are calculated to advance his career.
I remember reading an article a while ago about Johnson’s rivalry with David Cameron, which stretches back to their time together at Eton. Johnson is desperate to be Prime Minister, so that he’s on a par with, or even outdoes, Cameron – his long-term personal rival. He almost managed it in 2016 before being ‘stabbed in the back’ by Michael Gove, which ultimately paved the way for Theresa May to take the leadership of the Conservative party.
Despite beating a retreat at the time, that setback hasn’t deterred him and he’s now beginning to play his cards to upstage an increasingly embattled May, and make himself the only real alternative as party leader.
The burka comment, while generating outrage from the mainstream media and the left, is something that’s much more palatable among other sections of society. Whatever people’s reasons for voting for Brexit, there’s undoubtedly a xenophobic undercurrent in at least some of those voters’ thinking and I’m sure many will have applauded Johnson’s comment as ‘free speech’ and deem it perfectly acceptable.
Indeed, according to a Sky News poll, 60% of people didn’t believe it was racist to compare burka wearers to letterboxes (to 33% who thought it was), while 59% felt it should actually be banned (contrary to the content of Johnson’s article). Another recent poll from ComRes suggested that 53% didn’t feel Johnson should be punished for his comment, while a further 60% believe free speech is under threat. Whether these polls are a fair reflection of wider societal thinking or not, Johnson is playing into the hands of a certain section.
The fact he wasn’t advocating a ban on the burka (a controversial step too far), means he’s taking the liberal outlook, but with carefully inserted disparaging remarks playing up to his target audience. Not calling for a ban ‘justifies’ the comment in the eyes of many, making it an acceptable ‘joke’.
Rumours abound that his strings are being pulled by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s right wing media advisor – someone who undoubtedly knows how to woo the right leaning masses.
The amount of fury the article has generated is playing to a large, possibly a ‘silent majority’ of the populace. If you take a cursory look at Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking the UK is so left-wing that it’s overwhelmingly socialist in its outlook. The Conservatives are the absolute scum of the earth according to many loud liberal voices. Yet, come election time, people vote for them. Although Corbyn saw a surge in popularity during the last election, he still lost.
Having had years of a coalition, it seemed at the time it might be the case for the foreseeable future of politics – a somewhat centrist line, sitting between the extremes of left and right. I remember the shock though when the Conservatives won a majority in 2015, with many of my Labour voting friends exclaiming, “How did we get it so wrong?” Then, Brexit happened.
No matter how loudly certain people decry the Conservative party and its key figures, May, Johnson, Gove et all, the majority (as evidenced by the results) still vote for them and for conservative policies – even if they’re not necessarily vocal about the fact they do.
It’s this quiet ‘underbelly’ who Johnson is targeting.
The fact that much of the mainstream media and outspoken left-wingers on social media have been so apoplectic and disparaging about Johnson in the wake of his Telegraph column is only likely to fuel his popularity. He’s positioning himself as a champion of ‘free speech’ – and someone who doesn’t pander to seeming political correctness. Refusing to apologise for it is only likely to work in his favour. After all, when it comes to politics you can afford to alienate a minority to win a majority – as Trump has demonstrated.
Johnson’s resignation from the Cabinet at Chequers over the Brexit strategy is another ploy to play into the hands of the Brexit majority. His burka comment was a bid to bring him roaring back to the fore of public consciousness – and it’s succeeded.
With Jeremy Corbyn mired in an anti-Semitic controversy that’s fracturing the Labour party, Johnson is rearing his head at an opportune time – for him at least, as it always is.