How long until Johnson’s vote-winning optimism collides with reality? | Andy Beckett | Opinion

For a politician of such obvious limitations, Boris Johnson’s success can be perplexing. He can’t cope with hostile questions. He can’t cope at prime minister’s questions. He’s no good on detail. His speeches ramble. His premiership and mayoralty have had many failures, from the garden bridge to the coronavirus, and few tangible achievements. His attempts to avoid scrutiny – such as hiding in a fridge during the election – often seem desperate.

And yet he wins elections and has high personal ratings regardless. These successes are often put down to press bias, or our deference towards posh rulers, his rapport with the English working class (which the left doesn’t understand), or the power of Brexit. In other words, his ascent and seemingly impregnable position since are explained in largely British terms.

That’s justifiable: everywhere in the world, a lot of politics is local. But another way of looking at the great balloon of his popularity – how it’s kept inflated, and why attempts to puncture it so often fail – is to remember the leader he perhaps most resembles.

In 2011, he told the Sunday Telegraph that Ronald Reagan was his favourite politician. Like Johnson, Reagan was a telegenic celebrity who became a high-profile regional and then national politician; first as governor of California from 1967 to 1975, and then a national one, as US president from 1981 to 1989.

As with Johnson, Reagan’s periods in office were frequently marked by broken promises and scandals, by evasiveness and incompetence. Having pledged to eliminate the federal government’s debt “by 1983, if not earlier”, he trebled it during his presidency. In the mid-80s, when some of his senior officials were found to have illegally aided rightwing rebels in Nicaragua, he professed ignorance.

Like his counterpart, Reagan sometimes came across in public as vague, not in control of events, out of his depth. Many commentators, and even some close colleagues, thought he was lazy and often disengaged. Yet many Americans weren’t bothered by his shortcomings. Exasperated critics called him the “Teflon president” – responsibility for anything bad rarely stuck to him. Johnson’s enemies know the feeling.

Reagan expressed a hazy but potent sense of optimism instead. “Unfailingly he sent forth the message that people wanted to hear: better days were ahead,” wrote the historian Haynes Johnson in Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. Our prime minister does the same.

And while Reagan smiled and chuckled for the cameras, out of sight the ideologues and hard men of his circle – the Dominic Cummings and Lynton Crosbys of their day – further militarised the American state and inserted coded racial messages into his election campaigns. A likeable premier, as Johnson remains to many Britons, is a great decoy for a government with confrontational aims.

How can opponents trap such slippery leaders? When Reagan stood for re-election in 1984, the Democrats tried soberly pointing out his flaws and warning about their consequences. Their candidate, Walter Mondale, a lawyer by profession, accused Reagan of “irresponsibility and deception” in office, and said that taxes would have to rise as a consequence. He lost to Reagan in 49 of the 50 states.

This may be a warning to Keir Starmer, even as he exposes Johnson’s bluffing and recklessness with almost embarrassing ease in parliament. Sometimes, voters prefer irresponsible leaders to realistic ones – partly because voters can be political fantasists themselves.

Previously a successful but hammy actor, as president Reagan maintained a persona that was so obviously mannered, delivering patriotic one-liners like a movie cowboy, that when he bent the truth many people weren’t shocked or necessarily disapproving. Instead, they judged the quality of his act. The similarly cartoonish public Johnson often gets the same indulgent treatment, with his half-truths tolerated as just him “being Boris”. Boris isn’t even his real first name.

He does lack one of Reagan’s advantages, though. In the 80s, with Silicon Valley burgeoning and the Soviet bloc in terminal decline, America’s position in the world really was improving. The famous claim of Reagan’s re-election campaign, that “it’s morning again in America”, was a blend of truth and fantasy – which is often the most effective propaganda of all.

But in today’s Britain, it’s much harder to promise, as Johnson did yet again this week, that under him the country “can be stronger and better than ever before”. Divided by Brexit and devolution, struggling economically even before the lockdown, the UK is an increasingly risky place for politicians to be bullish about. There is a danger of them sounding deluded and absurd. Johnson’s cheery nationalism may backfire in ways that Reagan’s never did.

We’re not there yet. But during crises voters can turn on governments suddenly. It’s usually forgotten that for the first two months of the 1978-9 winter of discontent, Britain’s last experience of protracted national disruption, Jim Callaghan’s Labour government continued to lead the Conservatives in some polls. But as the crisis dragged on, and seemed increasingly beyond Callaghan’s control, the government’s ratings collapsed and never fully recovered.

If that happens to Johnson, the disconnect between his popularity and his political abilities will stop being a mystery that columns like this try to solve. His long hold over voters and the media, ever since he won the mayoralty in usually Labour-supporting London 12 years ago, will be seen as a bit of a con – like an enticing but dodgy company that eventually went bust.

The Reagan presidency, for all its breezy airs, is actually an exacting model for other politicians to follow. It shows that charming half-truths can only sustain a government if you can keep voters half-believing in them, right to the end.

Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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