BY TIM DAWSON
“Win one for the Gipper!” supporters of the 40th President would shout, in reference to their hero’s early starring role as George Gipp in the Hollywood biopic of the eponymous college footballer. “Boris! Boris! Boris!” chanted the crowd, as the then Mayor of London celebrated the arrival of the Olympic Torch.
They may have been born five decades apart, but the parallels run deep. Both men are emblematic of their countries. Ronald Reagan, the folksy all-American, equally at home on his ranch as in the White House; Boris Johnson, the quintessentially English public schoolboy, with the common touch. They are warm, optimistic figures. But there’s more to it than that. They share a secret weapon rarely found amongst top politicians: they know how to tell a joke.
A sense of humour is everything – in life, as in politics. Perhaps it’s a particularly Conservative attribute. Witty right-wingers spring easily to mind – Alan Clark, Eric Forth, William Hague – whereas the Left tend to piety, wary that a flash of mischief risks undercutting their sanctitude.
Humour is useful in a crisis. However, a good joke is more than a “get out of jail free” card (though, as Clark’s survival in Mrs. Thatcher’s government demonstrated, it’s certainly that). It can destroy opponents. When Walter Mondale tried to attack Reagan over his age, Reagan’s response – “I will not make age an issue of this campaign; I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” – rescued a poor performance in that second Presidential Debate and cemented his re-election to the White House.
For Reagan and Boris, wit is central to their appeal. Reagan kept index cards of one-liners, which he would sift through then insert into drafts of his speeches. Meanwhile, Boris writes jokes with the precision of a comic, which is presumably why so many left-wing comedians dislike him – because his material is funny. Of course, this ability to get a laugh can become a target. Famously, Phil Hartman in Saturday Night Live portrayed Reagan as a whip-smart operator hiding behind the masque of a bumbling dunce. It didn’t do the President any harm, and similar parody would do Boris, with his nimble mind and delight in the classics, no harm either.
Electorally, the ability to connect on such an innate, visceral level provides many rewards. Reagan became an unlikely Governor of the traditionally Democratic California, then in the Presidential elections of ’80 and ’84 took states Donald Trump could only dream of. Similarly, Boris was twice elected as Mayor in a Labour stronghold, and delivered the Brexit result against a slicker, better-funded establishment Remain campaign.
Just like in the 70s, Conservatism needs updating and reimagining. It also needs a robust and instantly-recognisable figure to sell it. Margaret Thatcher had a huge, well-crafted image, though even her greatest fans, and I count myself amongst them, would concede wisecracks weren’t her strong-point. The current Tory leadership is beige – like Carter or Callaghan. Why stick with beige, when you can have red, white and blue? It may be a hoary cliche, but Boris is someone you can imagine having a drink with. Theresa May is someone who would tell you off for drinking.
The Conservative membership know all this. Holding things back are an elite rump of Parliamentary Remainers, who are squeamish about the referendum result and prefer willowy technocracy to bombast and showmanship. They need to think again.
Reagan used to talk of the US as a beacon of freedom, a “shining city on a hill”. That’s what Brexit Britain should be – gutsy, ebullient, and free. Selling this vision and making it happen is crucial to the Conservatives’ long-term success. It doesn’t matter how many terrorists Jeremy Corbyn is photographed laying wreaths for, the Tories are at sea unless they land Brexit.
In 1984, the Republicans’ famous slogan was “it’s morning again in America”. Well, Brexit represents morning again in Britain. We’ve had a tough couple of years, and there is no such thing as the Perfect Leader. Boris is an audacious choice, but he’d reinvigorate the party and re-energise the country. Ad astra per aspera, as one might say.
After launching himself into a successful screenwriting career with BBC3 comedy ‘Coming of Age’, which was commissioned when he was just 19 years old, Tim Dawson became ‘Broadcast Hot Shot’ in the 2008 Industry Magazine. Whilst he saw his TV series run for three successful seasons (2007-2011) he also lent his hand to writing for ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ starring Ralph Little and star of stage and screen Sheridan Smith. At the recent local elections Tim stood for the inner-city Hulme ward in Manchester.