by Amanda Higgin
Xanda and I are on the bus heading from my home town into Oxford. The skies outside are grey, a welcome cool after months of heat. I’m wearing jeans for the first time since June! A few seats in front of us, I spot Boris Johnson’s scruffy form on the front page of another passenger’s Metro and point it out.
‘The current face of British Islamophobia looks like he got dragged through a bush backwards. He had enough time to make tea, but apparently not enough to reach for a hairbrush!’
You’ve probably seen the image, either illustrating newspaper articles or in one of those Facebook videos that start playing as soon as you scroll over them: Boris Johnson, ex-foreign secretary, in a blue fleece and bold printed shorts, carrying mismatched mugs of tea on a blue plastic tray out to the journalists at the bottom of his garden. It’s the first photograph of him since his remark that women wearing burkas look like letter boxes, and is illustrating every report on the unfolding scandal.
Xanda smiles wryly and shakes her head, ‘He’s sly. That image has been painstakingly crafted to accompany those newspaper stories. He gets to dictate what they do, because it’s the only recent image the papers have.’
‘He looks like an idiot,’ I laugh. ‘When most politicians painstakingly craft their appearances it’s about the appropriate colour of tie or use of jewellery, not a dad fleece.’
‘Exactly,’ Xanda gestures towards the paper. ‘He looks like an idiot and reminds you of your dad. What else?’
I squint at the image over the other passengers’ shoulders. ‘Fleece and shorts isn’t a very practical outfit – it looks like it’s been thrown together with no thought, which matches his bed head. Random household cups, plastic tray, sugar and milk in their store packaging: he’s undermining any impression that’s he’s posh. Imagine if he’d come out with matching china and a sugar bowl! I don’t even see a spoon. He’s wearing blue and the tray’s also blue, which might be a coincidence, but since he’s a Conservative it might be deliberate.’
‘You’re missing the wood for the trees,’ Xanda prompts. ‘He’s bringing journalists tea. That’s homey, it’s friendly and it’s excessively British. It looks like he’s such a nice bloke he thought about his paparazzi’s comfort when, let’s be honest, the only reason he’d think about them is that some of these photos now include their smiling faces. And there’s no coffee, which might have made a Trump-ish American connection.’
‘Jeez,’ I mutter. I’m starting to see Xanda’s point. ‘So he looks totally non-threatening in the context of right-wing remarks, British in a context where he might be linked to Trump, and thrown-together when people are looking for propaganda and fake news. And if he’s looking forward to the inevitable Tory leadership, he’s in contrast with Theresa May who always looks professional, even uptight.’
‘Of course he’s looking forward to the leadership race; he has been since Brexit landed on the table. You want to know the worst of it? He’s been talking to Steve Bannon, Trump’s old campaign manager. I’m guessing good old Steve might have given him a few pointers about constructing a public image.’
‘You know what, I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s an old Union president, after all.’
Xanda nods, ‘He’s been hacking since he joined this game, and that’s what he’s still doing. He can’t Facebook message every voter and party member he wants to influence, but he can dictate the context of the reporting. This image is everywhere. It’s so strange that it’s gone viral, even, giving him more free publicity.’
‘Lots of politicians claim to be the people’s candidate, but Boris is cultivating the appearance to go with it.’
‘Appearances are everything in politics, and accessible media has changed the playing field. Boris may be forming a new kind of political strategy, but he definitely won’t be the last.’