Boris’s speech (or should I say standup routine?) trampled on convention, political correctness and expectation with reckless abandon at the Conservative Party conference this week. For most, cycling through a rolodex of staff party jokes would not be the immediate protocol for a major leadership convention. Boris, however, seems to take a page or two out of Shakespeare’s book: ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’ The PM may don the metaphorical motley but his performance was anything but foolish.
As I explored in a recent presentation to investors in Mykonos, Boris understands that, to be a leader, one has to master the art of performance. With a flair for the dramatic, the Falstaffian maverick flouts common norms and social etiquette with impunity. Like the fool, he has no traceable ideology; there is no specificity to his posturing, opinions slip away before they are even formed. From pithy one liners like ‘John Bon Gove’ that magnified the absurdity of his cabinet member found awkwardly bouncing alone in an Aberdeen nightclub, to capriciously reducing opposition leader Starmer to a ‘seriously rattled bus driver’ , the performative leader is unconcerned with his past and plays to the mood of the moment. He is a cultural subversive that fumbles with such ridiculous sincerity that one struggles to doubt his authenticity (even though he is anything but truthful).
What his platform lacks in functional policy, he furnishes with satire and subversion: Boris gets away with avoiding any serious legislation by targeting imaginary villains like Cruella de Vil to validate petty policy over pet crime instead. He presents himself as a vacation from the footling and seriousness of the ‘real’ fools in the performance with vague prophetic platitudes like ‘delay and dither’. Boris is willing to ‘take the tough decisions’ to save the welfare system and hit net zero targets but there is no intimation of how he will do this — and, for him, there does not have to be. He may be deceptive and evasive but entertains rather than offends, muting the housing crisis with beaver jokes rather than empty statistics.
Though the successful fool-stroke-leader presents himself as a fringe character, he avoids being peripheral. He may comment on the play’s direction, but he is much bigger than the Act. He is building a brand and cult bigger than the Tory party itself. Like Musk, like Trump, like Falstaff, he knows that a leader has to be performative to break through the social siloes we all live in. And Boris, for all his foibles, knows this better than anyone in recent political memory.