Boris Now Has to Play at Being Serious

In the current Coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump is under little pressure to play at being serious, given the way an American “post-political” politics, and its embodiments in the media, are presently constituted—unless riling-up his base is equated with being serious.

The situation in the UK is for now somewhat different.

The alchemical quality known in politics as “gravitas” still seems to matter for many Brits, though this could be changing.

BoJo Johnson has succeeded beyond his abilities in life by cashing-in on his privileged background and turning flippancy into a “post-gravitas”  art.

Brexit ended the careers of two Conservative leaders (David Cameron and Theresa May) and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but Brexit could not persuade BoJo to abandon the art of gadding through life in the way that pigs are supposed to fly.

He’d “die in a ditch” if Brexit was not agreed to by the end of October last year, but of course he wouldn’t— BoJo probably couldn’t even play the part of a dying character in a pantomime because this would be too onerous for him, so the bogus rhetoric of “dying in a ditch” was just the pig-flying BoJo being the pig-flying BoJo.

Lying to the nonagenarian queen in an attempt to get parliament suspended so BoJo could run out the clock on his anti-Brexit opponents in the House of Commons?

In the old days lying to the monarch was considered treasonous, and BoJo’s chubby neck would have ended-up on the chopping block.

Not so these days— in the eyes of the relentlessly pragmatic and unprincipled BoJo, the increasingly dour Her Maj is well past her sell-by date, without the buffoonish charm he possesses for rightwing voters, so conning her is just fine.

In any event BoJo didn’t succeed in conning the queen’s wily and experienced advisers, well-versed in the subtle arts of guarding their monarch’s reputation, so the courtiers made certain the media knew Her Maj was “furious” at this deception. As a public gesture this meant little, but it probably was a smoke-signal to BoJo that no royal favours would come his way in future.

BoJo will take all of this in his stride, since he’s always made it clear that no one in the UK is more important than him— no royal, not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Lady Chief Justice, and as for Brits such as Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Dame Maggie Smith, the Beckhams, and the late Stephen Hawking, well, they aren’t fit to tie his shoe laces.

So perhaps only BoJo’s serial mistresses, whose sole required competence seems to be fitness in the master’s bed, can seemingly be assigned this lowliest of tasks.

The COVID-19 is however looking like a different proposition.

Where the COVID-19 crisis is concerned, Brits are treated each day to BoJo’s shambling and befuddled performances in parliament and in press conferences on the pandemic. Some in the media even speculate about his hung-over appearance on these occasions.

Easier to chug down vodka martinis than plough-through technical briefs from his scientific and medical advisers? Perhaps.

BoJo can only deal, or think, in sound bites, such as his casual assurance that the UK will “turn the tide on the COVID-19 in 12 weeks”, so reminiscent of his mendacious “Get Brexit done” slogan which conned many Brits into making him prime minister last December.

The simplest questions bamboozle him.

When will front-line health workers in the NHS have an adequate testing regime for the virus?

How quickly can capacity for wider testing for the public reach the promised 25,000 a day?

Can the government be specific about its efforts to increase supplies of personal protective equipment to hospitals?

Have doctors been given guidelines to help decide which coronavirus patients receive life-saving treatment?

Will your government launch a public education campaign comparable to those seen in some Asian countries?

BoJo simply does not have the answers because for now none exist. All the playboy prime minister can do is waffle and bluster.

The Tories have been in power since 2010, and they have been running down the NHS, sometimes by stealth, but more often than not in ways that are becoming palpably evident.

For now BoJo has ordered pubs, clubs, gyms, and restaurants across the UK to close, as well as announcing a wage-support scheme to try to stem job losses.

BoJo is completely in thrall to his adviser, the Svengali Dominic Cummings, an aficionado of eugenics  and nudge theory, the latter favouring positive reinforcement and indirect signals as ways to influence decision-making, so that legislation and enforcement only become a last resort.

In the COVID-19 crisis, with its already catastrophic outcomes across the globe, nudge theory has gone the way of the phlogiston of a bygone and discredited science, so legislation and enforcement are now to the fore (though the ensuing delays in these have probably resulted in increased fatalities).

But what the hell, the disposition of crackpot advisers (Nancy Reagan’s astrologer?) is to inflict their theories on ordinary human beings, come what may.

As a member of the American public, in an “at risk” category (I’ll be 72 in May), give me a Dr Anthony Fauci over a Dominic Cummings or Jared Kushner and Mike Pence—it’s that bloody simple, as we Brits say.

Meanwhile BoJo will play at being serious in press conferences and in parliament, while undermining himself at the same time with his trade-mark smirks, irrelevant asides, and third-rate gags.

Lacking a fundamental seriousness, BoJo will never know how to cease being the abject failure he really is, since all he knows about politics, and himself, is mainly to do with spectacles, failed vanity projects, and photo-ops (we put the issue of his addictive fornication to one side).

For now, Brits are his captives, just as Americans are Trump’s captives.

As my Australian-New Guinean friend, the lawyer and academic Martin Mesquita Watugari Hardie, said to me: “The West preferred to implement the state of exception [“Chinese Virus”, “Wuhan Virus”] rather than a medical response”.

There we have it, in Martin Hardie’s nutshell, though increasingly the West now has to find ways to bungle towards an ostensible medical response.

It is hard to put out propaganda about viruses originating from outside the West, when western countries now have, or are starting to have, more fatalities than these “other” countries.

It’s already here, baby, in Virginia USA, where I happen to live, and of course many Virginians probably can’t find China on a map.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.