We are firmly in the UK news cycle’s silly season at the moment, as our government is on its holidays. I don’t think many cabinet members are relaxing by the pool sipping mai tais though, as May has her big players attempting a ‘charm offensive’ tour of Europe. More charm, less offensive please. And with the summer break in full flow, holidaymakers across the nation are standing in queues at airports wondering how this will all be different next year. Newsflash: there will be more queues, fewer flights, and it will all cost a lot more. And to answer the questions of the people sitting near me on the way home from Greece: Yes, Greece is in the EU; No, being able to buy cigarettes and spirits on the plane home does not mean we will be ‘better off after Brexit’; No, we are not ‘leaving Europe’ — we are not geographically divorcing ourselves from a continent. On Brexit Day, we are not all going to head to the seaside with oars and start paddling to get as far away from France as possible. Why wasn’t there a quiz attached to the referendum ballot? Sigh.
Anyway, from my sun lounger by the pool, I kept up with the news, such as it was. Other than some dude going for a long swim, the news cycle for the last two weeks was dominated by criticism of two men. Week 1 focused on Jeremy Corbyn and the row about anti-Semitism that isn’t going away. Week 2’s vibe was ‘FFS, what has Boris Johnson said now?’ It’s when you look at Johnson and Corbyn head to head that things get really interesting…
Both men are Geminis, and their horoscope for today warns that even though they have been enjoying the limelight, they could be called to account, and facing a review. Well, right on schedule, here it comes! Let’s bring out the contestants.
In the Blue corner, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, 54: Former journalist, former Mayor of London, former Foreign Secretary, former candidate for leader of the Conservative party, former figure of fun. Currently positioning himself as a successor to Theresa May, because his leadership bid worked so well last time. Looks like a bear with a mop on his head. On purpose.
In the Red corner, Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, 69: Former Labour backbencher, former party rebel, currently leader of the Labour party and leader of the Opposition, having won the leadership contest twice. Looks like a substitute Geography teacher. (That’s on purpose too. Huh.)
Although Johnson and Corbyn come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, they have quite a few things in common. Both men are keen to portray themselves as nice ‘normal’ blokes, so much so, that there is a tendency to use their first names when talking about them. This backfired spectacularly when David ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron tried it, but somehow, people feel like they are matey enough with Boris and Jeremy for it to work. Both have legions of devoted fans who are adamant that their man is the saviour of the party and the only logical choice for the next Prime Minister. Both men rose up out of party division, from a shift away from the centre. Both men hope to surf that wave to power. And it’s this that provides the context for the current news cycle.
Johnson’s comments about burkas and niqabs, and the ongoing row about anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s party, are damaging stories in one way, but play to each man’s base at the same time. Both men are grappling with accusations of religious bigotry, and instead of falling on their swords about it, they are arguing that their ideas arise from their progressive, liberal attitudes. Johnson defends referring to women in face veils as looking like letter boxes and bank robbers with reference to feminist ideas about patriarchal oppression, and Corbyn’s criticism of the Israeli state (which is perceived as inherent in the way Labour has edited the IHRA definition of anti-semitism) is rooted in anti-war and anti-apartheid rhetoric. Both positions appear morally and ideologically pure on the surface. Who wouldn’t march for equality and peace? For their supporters, Johnson and Corbyn are saying the unsayable, and they see it as a bold act that puts principle before political convenience.
But both positions are dangerous. They aren’t really saying the ‘unsayable’. They are legitimising what a lot of people say in hushed tones. They are fanning the fire. Johnson isn’t appealing to feminists when he talks about the oppression of Muslim women; he is appealing to Islamophobes who want to feel justified in their attitudes. He is giving them carte blanche to hate, and an ideologically progressive excuse to do so. Corbyn’s position on Israel is more ambiguous than that, but as we have seen from the last few months, it has provided ideological wiggle room for anti-Semites in the party and among his supporters, and has led to an outpouring of anti-Semitic abuse that Corbyn has not been able to control.
If you are clenching your fists and looking forward to commenting about false equivalence, I’m not suggesting that Corbyn and Johnson are the same. Both want to appear to represent the underdog, but Corbyn clearly cares about Palestinians more than Johnson cares about Muslim women. If Johnson feels that women in burkas are oppressed, then he should criticise those who enforce it rather than ‘victims’ of it. (Better yet, he could mind his own business and stop believing that what women wear on and do with their bodies is any concern of his.) Corbyn’s position is based on a genuine principle — an unyielding one that he won’t abandon even though it could cost him dearly. Johnson chooses his principles from a wardrobe, selecting whatever he thinks will suit him on that particular day. Johnson simplifies the issue of the burka in order to make his point; Corbyn finds complexity in the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism. Johnson’s attitudes are loud and proud; this is far from the worst thing that he’s ever said publicly. The press have spent countless hours tracking down any story that shows Corbyn in a bad light, because examples aren’t that easy to find. Both men have opted to discuss complex and highly volatile issues, certainly, but it’s Johnson’s language that was the main issue, not the topic itself. It’s OK to admit to having reservations about the burka. It’s not OK to insult cultural and religious customs and make Muslim women more vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Deliberately or otherwise, both men have picked fights with major religions, but where Johnson is defended by the media on a regular basis, his comments dismissed as gaffes and his family publishing articles in his defence, Corbyn is routinely hauled over the coals. When Corbyn gives a statement, it is picked over by journalists for every tiny possible nuance. When Johnson refuses to provide a statement, he is lauded for making people cups of tea.
Both men carefully cultivate an unpolished look — Johnson deliberately messing up his hair, for example — but whereas Johnson is portrayed as eccentric, Corbyn is described as untidy and poorly dressed. Corbyn is consistently portrayed as an incompetent subversive, his seriousness portrayed as humourless and gormless, whereas Johnson is shown as ‘bumbling’, funny and charismatic rather than hopeless and incompetent.
Despite their legions of acolytes, neither man is a political messiah. Both men are potential Prime Ministers in waiting, but neither looks primed to deliver us from the chaos of the last few years. Neither comes across as a leader that can heal a nation; Boris seeks to capitalise on dividing his party, and Corbyn has failed to unite his. In this battle of the ‘bigots’, both are claiming moral victory, but no-one’s actually winning…
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, the Tories and Labour are squabbling amongst themselves, Brexit Day is looming and oh, there is the small matter of Everything Else That Needs To Be Done To Govern The Nation. But hey, summer break y’all.
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