Boris Johnson is not short of troubles, or advice. Most of that advice, from colleagues and commentators alike, comes down to the same thing: he’s got to change. Change his team, change his approach. Change the way he does things.
That argument is a familiar one at Westminster. When a Prime Minister hits trouble – and this one has hit it harder and faster than most – those of us who comment on politics reach for ‘change’ as the answer.
It’s often good counsel, too. It is logical that the best way out of a situation is to change the fundamental causes of that situation.
But there’s a problem with the argument that this Prime Minister – or any PM, come to that – must change. It won’t happen. Boris Johnson isn’t going to change.
I don’t say this as criticism or praise, merely observation – and not just about him. People don’t change. Once we’ve reached middle age, we are who we are; fundamental shifts of character and outlook are vanishingly rare and usually the result of (and sometimes cause of) trauma, not the product of a deliberate effort of self-improvement.
This, I think, is especially true of high-achieving men. I’ve dealt with quite a few of those over the years, and concluded that success can entrench inflexibility. Basically, if you’ve reached a position of power and authority, it’s very easy to conclude that your character and approach have been the right ones, so why would you change them?
This is especially true of politicians, who are less likely than just about any other group of successful leaders to undertake self-analysis and self-criticism. Politics is a fairly effective selection mechanism for finding self-referencing overachievers who believe in heroic individualism: if a politician gets to the top, he’s very likely to conclude that this was because of his own efforts and talents above all.
Boris Johnson probably believes more than most politicians in heroic individualism, but he’s hardly unique. I’ve never heard a household name politician say, ‘yup, I got this because I was lucky’ and I never expect to either: the self-belief necessary to get those gigs doesn’t leave room for that sort of humility, at least while you’re in post. (Much the same is probably true of columnists, but let’s leave that act of navel-gazing for another day.)
So Boris Johnson is part of a group of people who are not inclined to change. Yet even by the standards of that small group, he is unusually unlikely to change. Because why on earth should he?
To the rest of the world today, it looks like he’s in trouble, like his character and style have led him to the brink of political disaster. But zoom out a bit and look at it this way: his character and style, unchanged over a lifetime, have been a tremendous success for him.
Exhibit 1: he’s Prime Minister, a job many people – me included – thought would always elude him, precisely because of his character flaws. Yet he’s in No. 10, with a majority, and he got there by being himself.
What ‘being himself’ means has been described repeatedly by former colleagues and associates, who have shed millions of words anatomising his character, his approach to personal relationships and to the truth. His misadventures, personal and professional, have been documented in full. He has been repeatedly found wanting, sacked from numerous jobs and seen many relationships fail. His disappointed former friends greatly outnumber his current admirers.
This is the character that many people now say must change, in the wake of partygate, Shropshire and the rest. But again, the problem with that call: why should Boris change?
That character, with all its flaws and costs, have been unchanged over his adult life. He’s 57 years old. He has been enchanting and then disappointing people for 40 years and more, and his trajectory has, over that time, been upwards. Most of his setbacks – sackings, controversies, personal disasters – have been followed by successes that more than compensate for earlier losses. That’s not an experience that encourages introspection or personal growth. As someone who has known him for a very long time once told me:
‘He’s spent his entire life ignoring and breaking the rules, and the world has forgiven and rewarded him for it. What reason does he have to do anything differently?’
To be clear, I say this neither as criticism or praise; my aim here is just to name things for what they are, and Boris Johnson is a high-achieving man in his 50s with neither inclination nor reason to change.
Being himself has made Boris Johnson rich, famous and, on balance, successful – at least, far more successful than almost all of the journalists he worked alongside, and all of the politicians he has served with. He’s the Prime Minister and whatever happens next, his place in history is secure: he might not get the statues he dreams of, but he’ll remembered, talked about.
Whatever his troubles today, over his lifetime being Boris has worked very well for Boris Johnson. Don’t expect him to change.
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