Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Meaning of Boris

There's a very simple reason why the Mayor of London is the flavour of the month - both for the beleaguered Tory party and for the press pack - he makes people smile. When you think of Boris, you picture him stuck on a zip-wirefalling into a river or, most memorably, taking on Germany at Wembley (if you can watch that last video without smiling, you are clinically dead inside).

Tories generally have struggled to deal with the Bridget Jones problem (c'mon, you remember...):

"It is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme."

This was summed up even more brutally by Theresa May way way back in 2002, when she referred to the fact that people called the Tories "the Nasty Party". Since then, the main job of all the party leasers has been to try and rebut this view, and recreate the Tory party's image as one of warmth, decency and compassion. (This, incidentally, is why the Andrew Mitchell story was so unbelievably toxic. It's at least twenty times easier to confirm someones opinion of a party than it is to change it. The image of, ahem, a "braying bossy man" shouting at policemen and calling them plebs is just disastrous.)

The problem with trying to deal with this image problem, is that you have to acknowledge it in order to do so. And self-criticism isn't at all fun - especially when the underlying charge is (or at least is perceived to be) unfair. Criticise someone for their lack of competence, or their misconceived notion of politics, and you are attacking their political beliefs. Attack someone because they are 'nasty' and you are attacking them personally - and that's much less easy to deal with. We don't like to think of ourselves as nasty people (for the very sound reason that the overwhelming majority of us aren't). It's depressing. It's all a bit miserable. When Tories hear the leadership saying 'the party needs to change, and to modernise' they tend to hear 'you're nasty and you need to change'.

And that is why Boris is Conservative catnip. He doesn't say the party needs to change. He insists that it has already changed, and that to be a Conservative is to be a good person doing good things - and is something to be proud of. His ebullience - his personal refusal to be downcast, even when apologising, is uplifting. Make people feel good about themselves, and they will feel good about you too.

Since Disraeli appears to be all the rage at the moment, there's a (probably apocryphal) story about him that rather sums this all up. A young lady was asked her opinion of the Gladstone and Disraeli - both of whom she had sat next to at dinner.

"When I sit next to Mr Gladstone," she replied, "I feel that he is the cleverest man in England. But when I sit next to Mr Disraeli, I feel that I am the cleverest woman in all the world."

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