TERRY PRONE: It’s bad news for Boris Johnson: The time’s running out for clowns

Boris Johnson speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party annual conference. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

The problem was that Boris has absolutely no idea what would work in practice, writes Terry Prone

When they get around to the interior decoration of the new National Children’s Hospital, let’s hope they pay attention to a precedent set when the children’s hospital in Sheffield was being redesigned.

The university did some research. They actually asked children what they liked and didn’t like, and reeled back in amazement when the children, effectively, told them what to do with clowns.

No clowns, was the demand. No clowns anywhere, the children said.

At the time, one of the researchers interpreted what was, but shouldn’t have been, a surprising finding.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” she said.

We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.

In fact, as of the 1980s, we know that some people, having reached full adulthood, do so with a major phobia about clowns, now called coulrophobia.

The rest of us may not be phobic about the ugly, over-made-up, attention-seeking, weirdly-dressed lot of them with their sticky-out hair, but we don’t much care for them.

The contradiction to this general rule is a British Conservative politician named Boris Johnson, who qualifies on all of those fronts except the make-up.

Boris Johnson’s name was made during John Major’s stint as prime minister, when Johnson was appointed European correspondent of The Daily Telegraph.

Seasoned politicians at the time regarded him as engaging and colourful (as clowns are supposed to be) although they were taken aback by his intermittent relationship with the truth.

At least one of them repeatedly pointed out that his reports of what happened at high level meetings were closer to fiction than reality.

Or, more bluntly, that he attributed views to spokesmen they didn’t hold, in speeches they never gave, at meetings where the topic wasn’t on the agenda.

The point about Johnson was that he met the need for sharp copy and — when he appeared on TV in programmes like Have I Got News for You looked funny and made the kind of noises sometimes mistaken, in educated Englishmen, for wit.

He wrote about cars for a magazine and seemed set to occupy a modern version of the old court jester slot.

The court jester slot had a lot going for it. Permanent. Pensionable. In some courts, you even got your own pet monkey. In addition, you were provided with a cool uniform which established your status at a glance.

The best thing about being the court jester, or “fool” was that you also got a hidden free pass to be disrespectful to your betters.

You could come in, do a bit of slapstick, and then a riff to the effect that the king was an alcoholic womaniser who didn’t know up from down.

If the king laughed, everybody laughed and the fool could, thus empowered, turn to savage half the courtiers, who, thus disempowered, had to stand there, sweating into their doublet and hose, their face possessed of a rictus smile indicative of their non-existent capacity to take it in good part.

When the king got bored, the fool or jester or clown, realising that he was losing the dressing-room, would retire and wait for his next outing.

Some modern theorists would hold that the court jester served as a useful corrective, mitigating the worst instincts of the ruler of the day, but the theory has little to support it.

All we know is that they evoked laughter, removed boredom and knew their place.

That last is the important point. They knew their place. Their place was in entertainment and they vanished as soon as their employer got fed up with them.

They never became anything more important.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has never known his place and, if some grownups don’t stop him, he could become prime minister of our nearest neighbouring state.

This despite a consistent clown performance over the past three decades. One account of this man’s unchanging eejitry, made manifest when he was mayor of London, is told by Ken Clarke, a leading Tory politician for almost 50 years.

At one point, when Clarke was in charge of justice in the Cabinet, Johnson came up with a scheme to help public drunks get and stay sober.

“The problem was that Boris had absolutely no idea what would work in practice,” Ken Clarke wrote in his memoir, Kind of Blue, “and met my efforts to put to him even the most elementary questions, such as how much it might cost, with totally bizarre responses. The first time that we met and Boris found himself unable to answer a straightforward question, he clowned about, ringing the Met commissioner on his mobile and asking him to convince me.”

The clowning didn’t stop there.

“The second time we had arranged a telephone call, and I was rather surprised that when faced with a similar fairly high level of questioning, Boris put his phone on speaker and asked someone from the office to come and answer questions on his behalf.

This was rather irritating because I was facing the real possibility of defeat in the House of Lords on this relatively minor and almost entirely unthought-through amendment. Boris has many fine qualities, but attention to detail is not one of them.

That this untruthful, inattentive and (according to recent reports) maritally unfaithful Tory could move unsteadily from designated clown status to that of contender for the top job in parliament is unprecedented.

In the last several centuries of parliamentary history, no Boris Johnson lookalike is to be found. The system has, up to now, extruded them.

This is not to suggest that the people the system has failed to extrude have been jewels in the tarnished crown of democracy, but at least the clowns have always, up to now, tripped over their extra long shoes and fallen on their faces.

Or — certainly in Ireland — had enough going for them to allow them to be accommodated as “characters”.

The exception has been Johnson, who, just last week, delivered a widely-covered speech at the Tory party conference attacking Theresa May’s Brexit plan as a betrayal of the people.

“If I have a function here today it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil,” he told the delegates, never afraid of a palpable untruth (claim to personal humility) or a sexual reference (lead in pencil.)

The astonishing thing is that, according to a survey published in yesterday’s Observer, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

The survey found more than 80% of respondents believe Theresa May to be a decent person, with roughly half that number seeing Boris Johnson in that light.

Similarly, it found 81% believe her to have the British nation’s interests at heart, whereas on this score, Johnson came in at 52%. Significantly, though, while 63% of Tories see May as a strong leader, only 39% take the same view of Johnson.

Maybe — just maybe — the clown has hit the point where adults bow to the wisdom of children and say “Please. Don’t send in the clown.”


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