‘I am CHARLES FOSTER KANE’. Orson Welles stands at the top of the stairs of a modest boarding house and bellows. His wife who has been given the address of the lover of Kane shakes her head and leaves. The wife is not the equal of Kane but he has weaknesses and they allow her to have justified contempt. The defiant words signal the end of the political ambition of a charismatic man.
Today, politicians have paramours and careers and both may prosper. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had an affair with Petronella Wyatt which involved the two of them supposedly taking ‘passionate’ cab rides around London, whatever that means. The two of them would insist on the cabbies playing cassettes of girlfriend ‘Petsy’ singing arias from Puccini. The world has changed. Gone is the tradition of the discrete Cockney cabbie that called you ‘Guv’nor’. Absurd as it is, listening to the cassettes may even be defensible. It cannot be fun having someone whisper Pfeffel in your ear, especially if they have had a few gulps of Bollinger champagne. My own moments have been limited but occasionally I have heard the odd whispered pleasantry. I remember that I quite enjoyed it. One has to be curious about how it would be with an aspiring opera singer.
The scene in the ‘Citizen Kane’ movie surprises us today. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that there was once an era when Tory politicians were capable. Michael Howard and Michael Hesletine may have had their flaws but compared to the present cabinet they were political giants. Politicians no longer have careers in which they acquire the ability that enables them to perform their jobs properly. Now we identify stars and desperately we launch them before they become too old and before their teeth lose their white sheen. David Cameron was launched into a leadership contest well before he acquired competence. The same has happened in the Labour Party. Milliband and Blair are also examples of the obsession with white teeth and unblemished complexions. Politics has gone pop.
The next political star that has back benchers excited because they believe he has the X factor is the Olympic God, Boris Johnson. He is popular and he was an easy choice. Not only is he prone to listening to charming ladies carouse him with Puccini as he crosses the Thames in a cab, he likes to use them for official business, taxis not opera singers. Between 2008 and 2009 his Mayoral expenditure on taxi fares rose by 540%. So, if Boris ever does become leader of the Tory party, we can at least console ourselves with the notion that they really did find him in the back of a taxi.
Meanwhile, the British are snobby about thick American Republican politicians. British TV programme producers often show clips of Sarah Palin and Herman Cain revealing their ignorance. The interviewer mentions a name of a country outside the States, the faces of the politicians go blank and the British laugh. But maybe we should pause. Admittedly, Caine and Palin are small minded horrors. It is also a pity Cain did not spell his name the same as the movie which might have offered some belated consolation to Charles Foster. There is, though, a naive almost impressive belief at the heart of the American populists that vote for these phonies. They believe in the potential of the ordinary man and woman and assume that Government can be run by people like themselves and who have common sense. They think that men who can chop trees and women who can shoot wild animals must have a practical touch that will benefit their Government. Public administration may look easy to outsiders but those who have had experience know it requires experience and a grasp of detail. It is dominated by macro-economics and, as Keynes proved, much is counter intuitive. Common sense is not valuable. It is actually dangerous. The populist belief is wrong but it should not be condemned. It is rooted in self-belief and ambition. It requires a population that has a strong sense of purpose. But it also reveals contempt for professionalism.
When the British feel confident to ignore practical skills we pick a different kind of leader. We are too cowed to have faith in the ordinary man and woman. Instead, we return to the romance of the Renaissance man, the gifted dilettante who has charm and appeal. The Americans want men with broad shoulders and middle aged women who have kept their figures. The British plump for a rotund person called Pfeffel whose ‘Petsy’ has a brother called Percicles. We want aristocrats. Perhaps because we all believe Britain has an aristocratic place in the world. Other people work, we offer disdain and irony.
And Boris can be funny. His honesty and self-effacement are often appealing and always disarming. Some time ago he said, ‘my chances of being PM are about as good as finding Elvis on Mars or being reincarnated as an olive.’ Today, Tory columnists are predicting he will be the next Tory leader so maybe Elvis is alive after all. Mars is difficult to credit but we have had American rock and roll stars turn up in council houses in the oddest places. On my last visit to London, Boris passed me on his bike. He looked wary rather than comfortable. I did not respond with instant dislike. The man has a gift for connecting with people. He was presumably joking when he said that, ‘voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chance of driving a BMW 3’. We know Boris is no empiricist. He failed as a management consultant. ‘Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth chart and stay conscious.’ Those who struggle through the wild unfounded generalisations of the Spectator, the magazine he used to edit, know the feeling.
We cannot be superior because Boris is right. Britain is full of people who want wives with bigger breasts and who want to increase their chance of driving a BMW 3. Most of them probably vote Tory and there is nothing more dispiriting than a failed attempt to convince these characters that they would improve their lives if they could only find alternative urges. Perhaps this will
be the Tory winning ticket, Johnson as leader and Clarkson as his deputy. Nobody will have any idea of what to do but their fans will like the jokes. Those who fear Johnson, and that clause alone makes his presence in British politics sinister, assume that the national stage will expose his weaknesses. Being Mayor of London means you have a modest budget and little choice as to how it will be spent. The British economy with its workforce of aspiring aristocrats and artists, what a group of Tories has recently called the ‘worst idlers in the world’, will expose the limited concentration of Boris, the man who falls asleep when exposed to a growth chart. After the last two years, the next stop after Cameron is not likely to be anywhere near Mars. Johnson, the man who compares himself to Elvis, sounds a likely destination on the ‘Way Down’.
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