In an interview earlier this week, Talkradio’s Ross Kempsell asked Boris Johnson what he does in his spare time. His answer was either a lie or another remarkable eccentricity. Either way, it is fascinating to see Johnson’s mind muddle its way through a response.
Johnson: I like to paint . . . and make things.
Kempsell: What do you make?
Johnson [after a long pause, a wistful turn of the head, and a grimace]: I have a thing where I make models. When I was mayor in London, we made beautiful buses . . .
(You might label it strange to bring up a mayoral term after being asked a question about one’s hobbies. But Johnson’s main campaign tactic has been to turn almost every question about his past into a referendum on his record as Mayor ten years ago.)
He smirks, on the verge of laughter. “I like to make . . . buses,” he says.
Kempsell: You make models of buses?
Johnson: I make models of buses.
Kempsell: So they’re gonna be in Downing Street?
Boris Johnson: So what I do . . . well I don’t make models of buses . . . what I make is . . . I get old, um, I don’t know, wooden crates, right? And then I paint them. And they have two . . . I suppose it’s a wine, it’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right? And it will have a diving thing. I turn it into a bus and I put passengers . . . You really wanna know this?
Ross Kempsell: You’re making buses. You’re making cardboard buses. Ok, that’s what you do to enjoy yourself.
As Johnson goes on to explain that he turns wooden wine crates into model vehicles and “paints the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful,” low-carbon double-deckers, Kempsell stares incredulously.
The genius of this answer is that it is absolutely hilarious. The clip has some ten million views, and nobody knows quite what to make of it. Most of my acquaintances in the United States, still believing in Britain’s reputation for hard-headed seriousness, are under the impression that it must have been a crushing blow to his candidacy. But for many in the U.K., the video is a sign that the old, larger-than-life character still exists — google “Boris bus” and you are no longer met with the controversial spending pledge that helped Leave win the Brexit referendum, but another moment of comedy from a once-metropolitan mayor.
As I wrote over a month ago, Johnson is attempting to perform an incredible balancing act: He is a liberal conservative who wants to build affordable homes, improve social care, and pursue a more open immigration policy, but his base is now a group of Conservatives who want him to be tough on migration and even tougher with Brussels. This morning, Johnson refused to rule out proroguing parliament in order to get a no-deal withdrawal passed through the House of Commons. The decision was a nod to his hard-Brexiteer constituency, but that group would not be large enough to bring him victory at a general election. And since attempting to force through no deal is likely to bring the date of a general election far forward, Johnson may not be able to act upon his liberal-conservative agenda after all.
So it seems that Johnson is trying to pretend the contradictions don’t exist — keep the hardliners happy by promising to take the U.K. out without a deal on October 31 and keep an eye on a possible general election by doubling down on his cartoonish charm. He is comforted by the elusive hope that the EU will offer him a better deal and provide him with a way out of the mess, but nothing suggests that they are particularly keen on saving him.
Which is why the bus video, absurd as it may be, is a meaningful: as a reminder that Johnson’s persona is a sideshow to distract from his incoherent Brexit policy. He’s an expert at abiding by his own set of rules, but Brexit means facing up to reality. At the moment, Johnson is playing three different games: one with the Tory-party membership, one with his colleagues in parliament, and one with the country at large. But inventive acts of comedy won’t help with the only game that matters. Johnson might be in for a shock when he’s finally invited to play with Brussels.