HAVE you noticed how haggard Boris Johnson looks these days? Doubtless the cares of becoming a new father (again) are partly to blame, although the wisdom of doing so at the age of 57 and while Prime Minister is debatable. Added to that it has hardly been the easiest of times these past two years, what with Covid (both getting it and governing throughout it). However, isn’t something else perceptible behind those tired eyes – a kind of desiccation of the soul?
For years there were those – and they were many, not least among them the TCW editors – who warned us that under the charm and bonhomie lay a man without a moral compass, a rotten, selfish human being who perhaps verged on sociopathy. Those of us who allowed ourselves to be fooled protested that yes, he may be some or all those things, but he was also capable of seeing the big picture. He wanted to be seen as a historical figure – a latter-day Churchill, no less – and to accomplish that he would have to rise to the challenge and opportunities that Brexit afforded. Moreover, his undoubted gift for boosterism was what the hour required in uniting Britain behind a bold new vision, allowing us to make the most of what Gisela Stuart termed this ‘unfrozen moment’ in British history.
More fool us. What we see before us today on our screens is the digital version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, as the man becomes increasingly corrupt, he retains his youth and beauty, while his portrait rots in the attic. However, at the end the painting and the man change places, his moral turpitude made flesh. Like so many who are morally empty, throughout his life Boris Johnson took refuge in great ambition. During the European referendum campaign, he was fond of comparing Brexiteers to the Spartans at Thermopylae. However, as Lord Frost departs the scene and the end draws near, like Gray’s portrait, his haunted face now reflects the reality that he was always Ephialtes, the traitor who sold the pass, rather than the life-long delusion that he would one day be Leonidas.
When we look at this failed husk of a man, do we not see in him something else – a portrait of the Tory soul? Not for the first time, nor the last, Toryism’s fundamental moral rot is exposed before our eyes: its cowardice, its cynicism, its born-to-rule arrogance. The disappointment amongst all those, whether loyal shires Tory or Red Waller, whether hardened cynic or starry-eyed, who dared to hope and voted for this government is colossal and heartbreaking.
Boris Johnson personifies both the party’s collective failure and spiritual bankruptcy. Britain’s tragedy is that whoever eventually succeeds him is unlikely to prove much better.