The Politics of Projection


There must have been times, as assassin after assassin plunged in the knife, that Boris felt like Mr Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express. But the fictional murderers did, at least, have an excuse. He was a gangster. Justice was being meted out. Boris’ sins (which are, let us agree, legion), seem of a rather lower moral order. Kidnapping and killing a child did, in Christie’s time, carry the death penalty. Lying about what you knew about a colleague’s misbehaviour never has.

At least, though, once he had been killed, Ratchett’s murderers stopped. For many, however, that Boris had agreed to go was not enough. He needed to go NOW – preferably frog-marched out the front door of Downing Street, handcuffs or chains optional. So heinous were his crimes that he needed, in defiance of all precedent, to be expelled from the body politic, his career serving, like the bodies of executed criminals in days of yore, as an example to all those tempted to follow his brand of fast and loose government.

As events progressed, it was hard (for your correspondent at least) to avoid thinking of Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s epic of the Vietnam War. Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated military hero (run somewhat to flab, it must be said, just like someone else) has gone rogue and is holed up in a jungle lair in Cambodia. Unable to bear this affront to their values by a member of their own tribe, the Army dispatches an assassin to “resolve the problem”. Unseen until the end of the movie, Kurtz nonetheless dominates the action, an inescapable presence, always lurking over his foes. When the two finally meet, the colonel having acquired a photo-journalist acolyte (think Nadine Dorries or Jacob Rees-Mogg on industrial quantities of hallucinogens), Martin Sheen’s assassin brutally hacks his enemy to death with a machete, the footage interlaced with an ox being ritually butchered.

Produced after the war, there is a sense in which Kurtz functions as a scapegoat, a sacrifice in expiation of America’s sins. Like the tribespeople slaughtering the ox, he is an offering to assuage the gods’ wrath at the country’s actions. The Cambodians give up an animal, the Army one of its own.

Boris himself has spoken of ancient kings serving as sacrifices, to be killed to allow national progress and, if ever there was a time for it, it is surely now. The country has gone through the twin traumas of Brexit and Covid. Whichever side of those debates you stood on – Remainer or Leaver, Hard Lockdowner or Vaccine-denier – there can be little doubt they have divided the nation. And Boris has been at the heart of both. His continuing in office is a standing rebuke to those who have disagreed with him or suffered during the pandemic. Perhaps the country can only move forward if he goes.

He is, like Kurtz though, a convenient scapegoat. Both are members of the elite, but both have betrayed it, seeing through the vacuity of its beliefs. Kurtz turned his back on war, seeing its horror and futility, Boris on the elite consensus of EU membership. Perhaps the glee with which his resignation has been greeted reflects a relief at the comeuppance for treachery. The one who has violated the group norms has been punished, and all can be well again, the natural order restored.

But can it? The sacrifice has been made, but will the gods’ favour be regained?

Perhaps it will. Maybe he was one uniquely bad apple among a barrel of flawless specimens. Only he had a troubled relationship with the truth. By contrast, those left in the game are a Parliament of modern day George Washingtons. Now that the clown is shuffling out of the ring, a new performance can be put on, altogether more serious and dignified.

But killing Kurtz did not lead to America winning in Vietnam, nor, no matter how many sacrifices they conducted, did the Israelites ever find their way back to Eden. Things were too far gone for that. If Johnson was not the cause, but merely a symbol of political decline, why would sacrificing him make any difference?

The Persian poet Rumi wrote:

“Many of the faults you see in others, dear reader, are your own nature reflected in them.”

Centuries later, the psychologist Sigmund Freud coined the notion of “projection”, whereby individuals, aware of their own failings, find it easy to see them in others. Is the reaction to Boris a mass exercise in projection by the political class?

Consider some of those most energised by his downfall. Alastair Campbell has called him a “pathological liar” but it will not be too far into his own encyclopaedia entry before the words “dodgy dossier” make their first, fateful appearance. Sir John Major called for Johnson’s immediate resignation, not just as leader, but as Prime Minister. The same Sir John who had an affair with Edwina Currie and only managed to secure ratification of the Maastricht Treaty by the parliamentary shenanigans of making the key vote a matter of confidence.

Speaking of votes of confidence, Keir Starmer is threatening to call one as the Conservative Party is so tainted by its association with Boris that it can never be trusted again – an argument so bold from someone who sat in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet that, in his previous career, it would doubtless have prompted the judge to raise an eyebrow, and the opposing counsel to lick his lips. For Sir Keir’s constant attacks on the Prime Minister’s integrity come from a man whose personal definition of the quality is so capacious that it allows him to sit in the shadow cabinet of only the second party found to be institutionally racist and claim to be an anti-racism campaigner, to describe himself as a democrat after attempting for years to overturn the result of a referendum, and to tout his national security credentials after trying to install Corbyn and McDonnell in Downing Street.

Perhaps we should cut Sir Keir some slack – oppositions are there to oppose, after all. But what of Tories such as Tom Tugendhat, loudly touting his “courage, conviction and integrity” in an assumed contrast to the man he hopes will be his predecessor. A few short months ago, he wanted to expel every Russian living in Britain. A conviction certainly, but a deeply unpleasant one and the sort of approach that might be favoured in the playground, rather than the Olympian corridors of power.

For, if the political class can see flaws in Boris, they should be able to recognise plenty in themselves. Perhaps, therefore, he is less a scapegoat and more a distraction. By focusing attention on his obvious shortcomings, his fellows avoid scrutiny of their equally grave failings. Like a street hustler shuffling the cards, they want us to look at the guy who ate some cake, rather than their own monumental failures of judgement.

Thus, Dear Reader, whether you weep for him or rejoice over his fall, do not expect things to improve. Like America’s jungle misadventure, things are too far gone. We may have cured a symptom, but the body politic is still riddled with disease.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.