Thursday, September 27, 2007

Boris - not funny and not clever

It has taken me a while to work out my precise view on Boris Johnson. Trying to pin him down is like trying to pin down a pregnant jellyfish on a ship during a force ten gale.

The moment you say that he is not a very serious politician, the reply comes: “Ah, but he is funny!” Haven’t you got a sense of humour?”

Then you say that he is not very funny and the reply comes “Ah, but he has a very fine intellect.”

So let’s take that second one first. Is he “funny”? Well yes, on “Have I got news for you”, we have all chortled at him. But I think it is worth nailing down why we have laughed at him on that programme. He is no Paul Merton, who is able to reduce everyone to fits of giggles by a quick deadpan one-liner or an extended foray into whimsy. Boris cannot do stand-up, for example. I saw him try at the Brit Awards once. It was embarrassing. What Boris does is to play the incompetent host. Everyone laughs at him because he cocks up everything. He fluffs his lines, he forgets what he is doing, he makes some totally random remark, he sits there with disheveled hair and shambolic suit. Paul Merton and Ian Hislopp say something funny about him, gently taking the rip, and everyone is in stitches. Hilarious. Boris knows the joke is on him but he forges on, undaunted, retaining an internal dignity, if not an outward dignity.

But does that amount to being “funny”? Well, not in the way that Frank Skinner is “funny”, no. Boris is funny in the way that an absent-minded College lecturer is funny as he hilariously messes up using the overhead projector and then makes a self-deprecating remark to the students.

Boris is perhaps “funny” in the sense of the traditional incompetent clown, who tries to ride a wiggly bike and ends up on the floor besides the bits of ex-bike. Even then, I can’t imagine Boris cutting it as a circus clown and I suspect he could take quite a few lessons in comedy from the Chuckle Brothers (those titans of comedy who have now, incidentally, clocked up 20 years on Children’s BBC television).

And there’s the rub. Does the “funny” incompetence of a semi-competent clown qualify Boris to run London?

“Oh no, comes the reply, but he’s got a very fine intellect”.

The jellyfish slips from our grip – for the moment.

OK, let’s look at that "intellect". Yes, Boris has sufficient “intellect” to write very pungent and wide-ranging articles for the “Daily Telegraph”.

But is that “intellect” the necessary kind of “intellect” to run London? Let’s take a couple of examples.

In 2005 when interviewed by the Daily Mirror, in the middle of an election campaign, Boris was asked for his view on drugs. That was reasonable lien of questioning in an election campaign and given that Boris has made a lot of, typically chaotic, statements about drugs.

The reply from this man of “fine intellect” was:

I can't remember what my line on drugs is. What's my line on drugs?

Let’s do “funny” first. That isn’t funny in the sense of someone telling a joke or making a quip. It is funny in the sense that I laughed when I heard it because it was an example of Boris being "the thnking man's idiot". He is supposed to be a politician but when asked a completely innocuous and standard question he falls apart at the seams. I laughed at him. But then people would say – 'oh well, he meant the remark to be funny'. Ah yes. That old smokescreen. Make a cock-up but then say you were being funny to cover your tracks. Boris seems to use that little ruse very often.

Let’s do “intellect” now. So, Boris Johnson, has a “fine intellect” they say. But he doesn’t have sufficient intellect to remember a simple couple of sentences on one of the most prevalent areas of public policy debate - drugs. But there is another point. Look at some Boris Johnson’s past quotes on drugs:

Yes, cannabis is dangerous, but no more than other perfectly legal drugs. It's time for a rethink, and the Tory party - the funkiest, most jiving party on Earth - is where it's happening.

I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed so it didn't go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar.

Responding to an Oxford contemporary who said Johnson had never taken drugs, the Tory MP for Henley said: 'This is an outrageous slur...of course I've taken drugs.'

Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP for Henley, said: "I tried it [cocaine] at university and I remember it vividly. It achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever." He added that he had smoked "quite a few spliffs" before he went to university. He said: "It was jolly nice. But apparently it is very different these days. Much stronger. I've become very illiberal about it. I don't want my kids to take drugs."

…So, those quotes reveal a fluid attitude to drugs, expressed in typically colourful language. Fair enough. The Conservative party policy has been changing also and they now call for cannabis to reclassified from Class C to B. It has to be said that the basis for this policy change, an alleged scientific observation on the “changing” strength of cannabis, has been vigorously challenged by scientists, not least by scientific journalist, Ben Goldacre.

The point is that Boris Johnson’s quotes on drugs have been so colourful and fluid, and the Conservative party’s view on drugs has been so flexible, that it is not surprising that Boris found himself unable to “remember” his line on drugs. (Perhaps he was struggling to reconcile his past statements and cross-match them to Conservative policy – a task a bit like playing three dimensional chess in a thunderstorm.) But for someone aiming to be the most powerful directly elected politician in the UK, is it too much to ask that he should steer a simple enough line through the key area of drugs policy so that he has sufficient intellect to remember it?

I would cite another example concerning Boris Johnson’s “intellect”. This morning he took part in, for him, a typically chaotic interview with James Naughtie.

Johnson was asked about his London policy goals. His first response was that he wanted to improve democracy in London, intimating that Ken Livinsgtone rules without sufficient cognisance of the views of the London Boroughs. Fine. But when asked to give an example of what he meant, Johnson resorted to his normal, whimsical claptrap. He said that he had recently passed a row of old Victorian terraced houses in East London which were ear-marked for demolition. That’s terrible, he said. It shouldn’t happen, he implied. Ok then, Naughtie said, what would you do about that? Would you stop that happening? “Er…I would let the boroughs know my opinion that future generations would not appreciate them knocking down such fine buildings”.

So, after saying that he wanted to improve the democratic say of the boroughs over the mayoralty, Johnson cites an example where he, as mayor, would tell the boroughs what to do. Brilliant. What a fine intellect that man has!

When further asked what he would do to achieve one of his main stated aims, to help people onto the housing ladder, Johnson cited the example of housing organizations who offer shared equity. He waxed quite lyrical about this and said he would “help” such schemes. Ah. I see. So no doubt this would mean setting up something like a Mayor’s Housing Commission to look at ways to encourage boroughs to expand shared equity schemes and do things like passing on shared equity rights when a property is sold on, wouldn’t it?

It’s already happening.

Brilliant “intellect” that. I have to give him credit. Say that you would do something that is already happening. Brilliant.

In summary, Boris Johnson is only funny in the role of an incompetent clown and does not have sufficient “intellect” to do basic political tasks, like articulating simple policy statements.

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