Benjamin Errett is the author of Elements of Wit: Mastering the Art of Being Interesting and writes a weekly newsletter at getwitquick.com
Boris Johnson may be the next prime minister of Britain. He may also be reincarnated as an olive, locked in a disused fridge or decapitated by a flying Frisbee. All outcomes are not equally likely, but all have been suggested by the man himself.
When the new leader of Britain’s Conservatives is chosen on July 22, odds are very good it will be Mr. Johnson. As mayor of London, foreign secretary and the most popular advocate of Britain’s exit from the European Union, his CV reads like a series of stepping stones to 10 Downing St. And yet, there is the not unsubstantial issue of his wit.
Isn’t wit something we like in a politician, especially a British one? Think of Winston Churchill, as every aspiring statesman invariably does. Imagine leading the forces of good to victory, then writing a Nobel Prize-winning, six-volume history of that victory, quipping all the while?
Or, to quote Mr. Johnson: “My position on cake is clear: I’m pro-having it and pro-eating it.” And once you have your cake and eat it, too, you’ve effectively laid claim to two cakes.
And therein lies the problem, one both defined and embodied by Mr. Johnson. The term cakeism has come to mean political opportunism, the idea that you deserve all the benefits but none of the drawbacks. It’s a shorthand for Brexit. And Mr. Johnson is the high priest of cakeism.
Can he simultaneously say clever things and accomplish great things? The most highly evolved of our species can perhaps command both rhetoric and regiments, but to have and eat both of these cakes requires calibration, patience and timing. The question of Mr. Johnson’s accomplishments – or the conspicuous lack thereof – is best left to political analysts; here, we’ll focus on how his turns of phrase invariably spin out of control.
As foreign secretary, Mr. Johnson publicly called the civil war in Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” while privately joking that “with friends like these, who needs Yemenis.”
When he told a gathering of ambassadors that “we have invaded, defeated or conquered most of your countries, but we are here as friends,” he may have misread the room.
And when he threatened an Italian minister that Prosecco sales would plummet if they didn’t keep Britain’s bubbly-swilling citizens in the European single market, his words were deemed “a bit insulting.”
It’s true that these barbs – and the many others that fill out innumerable lists of Mr. Johnson’s best lines/worst gaffes – are the opposite of traditional diplomacy, but he will gladly defend them if given a microphone.
“I think, actually, telling jokes is a very effective way of getting a diplomatic message across,” he told the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee after the Prosecco insult was raised. “Sometimes people greatly appreciate that you’re speaking to them in that informal way while subtly [and here he makes a fencing gesture] getting your point across – and actually, it can be a little bit condescending to think that they don’t get the point.”
This is the secret of Mr. Johnson’s wit: It’s not about the quips – it’s the bluster that follows. Verbal dexterity works for Mr. Johnson not by getting him into jams, but by getting him out of them. In fencing terms, it’s not the thrusts but the parries that win him the match. When asked a difficult question, the standard politician will gauge the shortest distance between the thorny subject and a comfortable topic and then attempt a pivot. Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, will fill the allotted time and more with as many words as possible.
It’s a technique he honed at Oxford in the 1980s, an environment that taught students “to write and speak for a living without much knowledge,” in the words of fellow graduate Simon Kuper. Writing in the Financial Times, Mr. Kuper recalled how “underprepared students would spend much of a tutorial talking their way around the holes in their essay.”
And as perhaps the world’s leading practitioner of this shady art, Mr. Johnson openly mocks the whole strategy of deflection and invariably exudes charm.
“Boris has the capacity to lose his way in a sentence, like a child in a nativity play,” according to Michael Gove, Mr. Johnson’s Oxford schoolmate and bested leadership rival. “You want him to succeed, and when he does, you share in his triumph.”
When asked by reporters how he could flatter the Polish people while supporting Brexit, Mr. Johnson responded that “some of the urgency you direct at me I would radiate backward and ricochet it to our friends and partners in Brussels.” This is ornate nonsense, and he knows it.
When asked about his comments about then-U.S. president Barack Obama’s alleged anti-colonial mentality, he responded, “I’m afraid that there is such a rich thesaurus now of things that I have said that have been one way or another, through what alchemy I do not know, somehow misconstrued that it would take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned.”
Is this windy charm enough to repair the damage done by his barbs – with enough left over to distract from, you know, figuring out Brexit? Can cakeism actually work?
Because of his political aspirations, there will soon be a definitive answer to that question. As a metaphorical baker, Mr. Johnson’s cakes generally turn out lopsided and overly salty – and then he explains at length that they were supposed to be that way. In fact, you see, cake is actually better that way. If Britons accept that argument, Mr. Johnson will truly take the cake.
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