Both Liz Truss and the disgraced PM have been pictured in the media cosplaying over recent weeks and months. Johnson dressing up as a fighter pilot, a soldier, a fishmonger, and in numerous hard hats and reflective jackets, and Liz Truss mimicking famous photographs and outfits of Margaret Thatcher have received the most coverage. But they aren’t the only ones. Priti Patel had her police jacket for her publicity shoots about immigration enforcement, and Sunak has been photographed in army camouflage, reflective jacket and hardhat, or white coat and mask during various visits, Sajid Javid likewise.
They are dressing up to play-act different roles, and carefully curating their image more generally (even when they are not overtly dressed up) to engineer public perceptions to create a desired public persona. Just as millionaire Nigel Farage likes to be pictured with a pint, play-acting an everyman whilst ranting about the elites (of which he is actually more representative), these outfits in which they don the trappings of those performing highly skilled, socially valued or manual jobs attempt to show that these posh self-serving elites identify with the working class and those who serve the country in the public sector that they are stripping bare. They want to look like they support the police, health, science, education, construction, armed forces by dressing up like them – but their actions say otherwise.
I suspect it is no coincidence that many actors have made it into positions of power (like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Volodymyr Zelenskyy) and that politicians who wish to rise up the ranks seek out visibility on reality TV and panel shows (Johnson appeared seven times on HIGNFY, four as host). These opportunities don’t show how well they can do the job, or how well they understand key issues, but they try to make the individual likeable and human by showing their charisma and sense of humour. That plays well for those who like to be centre of attention and have learnt to entertain, but it is a poor metric for selecting people into positions of influence, where it could be argued that more serious skills (like getting on and doing a job, rather than doing something performatively or simply arriving to take credit when it is done) should take precedence. For example, Johnson ineptly mopping the floor at my local specsaver for the cameras didn’t mean that he took any helpful actions about flooding or understands the wider consequences of climate change. In fact, it merely illustrated that he is used to other people cleaning up around him, rather than doing so himself.
Over recent years, we’ve seen a move towards comments from the public and funny responses from social media becoming part of the content of news coverage and newspaper websites. The outfits, relationships and trivial events in the daily lives of celebrities are presented as headlines, alongside coverage of the war in Ukraine or the emerging international health risks from monkeypox. Superficial fluff that wouldn’t have been seen as worthy of coverage before is now everywhere, along with clickbait headlines driving traffic to advertising. News has to compete for attention more than ever before. Has reality TV and social media led to this shift away from issues of substance and judging people by what they do, towards celebrity and appearance? Or is it a deliberate tactic to make incompetence and corruption more palatable?
In Johnson’s case it not only seems intentional, but was a tactic he openly discussed in a newspaper column. The formula became wearily predictable: When news coverage about the government is negative, they create a “dead cat” story to change the conversation and focus of attention away from it. Most typically, if stories break that that he doesn’t like, he distracts attention by saying or doing something controversial. For example, when it came to light Johnson had promoted various women he has had affairs with for public funding or employment, demonstrating clear misconduct in public office, suddenly he was visiting Ukraine. Like Donald Trump, he also likes to create so much noise and controversy that he is always in the spotlight, but fact checkers and those who apply any other perspective are always one step behind and swept away in the next headline. Hence the litany of racist, sexist and homophobic quotes. You could even argue that some of the roots of the public vote for Brexit (compounded by Russian misinformation and the outright lies of the £350 million for the NHS paraded on the bus, and the racist posters of queues of refugees, and the fake threat of Turkey joining the EU) were in his made up stories about bendy bananas, condoms or vacuum cleaners being subject to EU red tape. These were amongst more than 500 misleading UK headlines about the EU prior to the Brexit vote.
But it isn’t just the stories that are weaving a fiction in which the public are encouraged to believe something other than the truth, it is the whole persona Johnson has created. Boris isn’t even his real name, or the one he uses with friends and family, but Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson sounds like the posh entitled man that he is, not the the one he wants the public to see. It is well documented that he intentionally messes up his hair before TV appearances or being photographed, and he dons a silly costume for every possible publicity stunt, because he wants to be seen as that funny, harmless oaf and not as the dangerous corrupt risk to national security that appears if anyone pays enough scrutiny. In the case of the outgoing PM, it is hard to know what is beneath the construction of the scruffy buffoon he plays. He seems to have no sincerely held beliefs, to the extent he claims to have written both pro and anti-Brexit articles before deciding which one will serve him better to publish. The only constants that appear through reports about him over his professional life are his lying, his corruption and his infidelity.
So, when I see Liz Truss posing like a pound shop Thatcher, it seems to me to be a symptom of something bigger. Her history too shows weathervane opinions that shift according to what will help her access increased power. From her early Liberal Democrat politics, and her anti-monarchy speech, to her change of heart over Brexit, there is nothing that Truss will not 360 on if she thinks it is in her interest to do so. The latest shift to the far right with increasing racism and populist tax cuts that are likely to lead to both increased inflation and massive reductions in public spending is designed to please the Tory membership and secure her as the next PM. It shows she is cut from the same cloth as Johnson, and bodes badly for the country.
In some ways, the fact she is so unlikeable and insincere, coupled with the far right nature of her policies, might be helpful in the long term. The public are starting to see through the false promises of Brexit, and to see the harm that having such a self-serving government is doing to our NHS, the handling of the pandemic, our international relationships and standing in the world, and the cost of living. I hope that they will want future governments who care about standards of public life in the UK and recognise that self-interest by those with the most wealth and power harms all the rest of us, and the current incarnation of the Conservative party will never be electable again. Hopefully we are simply counting down until a general election, though I fear how much harm can be done in the interrim.
I’m also worried (after Trump and Brexit and the Johnson majority) that the public are too easily fooled by the characters that are being performed by those in and seeking power, and the biased coverage of the major newspapers. There is unprecedented lack of trust in politicians – which research suggests is not entirely unfounded. I’ve heard too many people say “but they are all as bad as each other” as if this government represents all politicians in the UK. The desperate headlines claiming Kier Starmer has millions of pounds of development land (rather than a field in which his mother keeps rescued donkeys) or that he also partied during the lockdown (rather than had a beer and takeaway where they had been working during election campaigning whilst restaurants and hotel catering were closed) seem to have made people think that nobody in politics is honest or genuinely cares about the issues affecting the population any more. I’ve even heard people equate Starmer having been honoured with a knighthood for his work as Director of Public Prosecutions to him being part of the crony establishment, like Lebedev and Johnson’s numerous other patrons who have joined the peerage.
I desperately want to believe that the next government will bring in immediate reforms to correct the course we are on. Some obvious changes would be to bring in electoral reform, to move away from the two party system in which most votes do not matter, towards a more representative system. They also need to make an independent committee to judge standards in public life, with the power to suspend and strike off any politician or public figure for gross misconduct. This could include sexual, criminal, professional or financial misconduct, serious or repeated lying, or making practical or financial gain for themselves, connected persons or donors. This should lead to prohibitions on second jobs consulting to businesses or working for them in the three years after leaving office, or on holding shares or interests in businesses that could be advantaged by their position or policy influence. I want to see immediate reforms to the House of Lords, striking out all recent appointments, hereditary peers, religious representatives and any member who has not participated sufficiently in the work of that office, and instigating transition to a second elected house which contains a wide range of subject experts. I also want to see stronger rules against misinformation, and support for the independence of the media (including the BBC and Channel 4). Social media companies should be made financially liable for harm caused through their platforms, as this is the only way they will act to prevent it.
But most of all, I want to see people I can trust in positions of power (as, it seems, do 97% of the population). I want individuals who have empathy and expertise, rather than just those with expensive educations. People who are motivated to do the right thing for others, rather than self-enrichment, and who have enough integrity to stand down if they are seen to have acted with impropriety. I want politicians who spend less time curating their image, and more time attending to the best interests of the population. Where you see the real person, not a persona they have created, and where being willing to work hard is not a costume they are putting on for the day.