When Jeremy Corbyn peers into his bathroom mirror, an event we assume to be infrequent and cursory, he expects to see a slightly craggy, beardy face reflected back. But in recent days his closest resemblance seems to be, in fact, to the over-nourished, beaming blondness of one Boris Johnson. At first glance it would appear that Corbyn, a pacifist vegetarian with a distaste for the media, and Johnson, a bon viveur who has used his journalistic platform to insult friend and foe alike, could not be more different. But look more closely and startling parallels appear.
Let’s work from the outside in. Both dress and present themselves in a way that typifies the political class they represent. Jeremy, with his fondness for a slightly crumpled suit, a Lenin cap and beard, most resembles a twenty-first century revival of a 1980s Essex University Politics lecturer on a CND march. I don’t recall seeing him in corduroy but imagine that he has clothing of that material hanging in his probably not very extensive wardrobe, occasionally fondling the fabric with nostalgia, waiting for that moment when all the planets align/the workers of the world unite* and a corduroy jacket, preferably with vegan leather elbow patches and lots of slogan-bearing badges, is once again the last word in Leftist style.
In just the same way, Boris is the living, breathing embodiment of a privileged elite. His corpulent frame and flushed face are a latter day incarnation of Squire Western from Tom Jones, an eighteenth century huntin’, fishin’, shootin’, wine-women-and-song type. Make that lots of wine. And women. Although Boris is distinctly metropolitan and it is difficult to imagine him in wellies or peddling his bike down country lanes, you get the feeling that he would have been right at home 250 years ago. Picture if you will (although for reasons of taste you may prefer not to) Boris squeezed into a pair of breeches and long, embroidered coat, a powdered wig at a jaunty angle on his sweaty head, perhaps immortalised in an engraving by Hogarth. Ensconced in a high-backed, winged leather armchair, a buxom wench perched on the arm, he would relish watching the globe turn imperial pink and the Augustan revival of the Classics, whilst dashing off articles for a Grub Street pamphlet, at a safe distance from the 2013 Defamation Act.
Both men are equally polarising. You love them or hate them. You are for or against. Indifference is the only thing they don’t provoke. Both are equally adored from afar by large sections of the population and despised by many of those who know them best, their fellow MPs and party colleagues. Both have images that appear to be at variance with the reality.
Johnson is adored in Conservative Clubs up and down the country as the kind of chap that it would be great to have a pint with, a good laugh, a true Brit, a normal bloke, overlooking perhaps his dual nationality, Brussels education and fondness for Homeric epithets.
The popular perception is that Corbyn is also a man of the people, albeit very different people. He is seen as untainted by murky Westminster dealings, in touch with the downtrodden, an intellectual who rises above party politics. In reality he is from a middle class family, went to a prep school then grammar school before failing to complete his degree. He has pretty much been a career politician ever since, first in the trade union movement and then as an MP for 33 years. He has never actually had a ‘proper’ job. For someone who is seen to be above skulduggery, he also has a very intricate understanding of the Labour Party constitution.
Interestingly, the supporters of both have conjured up endearing nicknames for their idols. Boris is popularly known as BoJo as if he were a posh, portly X Factor contestant. Jeremy is Jezza or JC, perhaps after another bearded man of principle who had a knack of attracting disciples.
Both groups will also firmly maintain that their man is a secret genius, hiding their lights under rather sizeable bushels. Their intellectual depths, political acuity, spell-binding rhetoric are being kept in reserve for a special occasion. While listening to one waffle and the other drone, some of us feel these occasions might never arrive. One is all show and no substance; the other all substance and no show.
This may explain that why both are so very good at preaching to the converted but go down as well as a Trump for President bumper sticker outside a Hillary fundraiser at the rare events when they are unable to avoid confrontation. At a press conference with John Kerry, a serious and driven man, Boris blustered and stuttered and tried to make a joke of insulting his boss; Kerry looked like he’d swallowed a wasp. Meanwhile at PMQs Jeremy has torn into Cameron then May in a way which makes Geoffrey Howe’s dead sheep seem like a most ferocious beast indeed.
In both cases you give them an inch and they take twenty miles. Loyalty is to be preached rather than practised. Jeremy was included on the ballot in the interests of being fair. He returned the favour by alienating most of the Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Labour Party, speaking in parliament against the party’s established policy on Trident and putting more far effort into pro-Jeremy Corbyn rallies than the Remain campaign. I imagine it takes quite a lot to annoy Remain campaign manager, Alan Johnson, a good-humoured, easy-going man. Jeremy is reported to have made him furious.
Boris has gone one better, causing his own Prime Minister and party leader to fall and Britain to career off-road onto the bumpy, uncharted territory of post-Brexit life by fronting an anti-Europe campaign that few think he really believed in.
Both parties have been slightly stunned by two such mavericks in their ranks and are uncertain how best to respond. Labour loyalists can’t even be bothered to surreptitiously stab Jeremy in the back anymore. They just plunge the knife in his front before going to lie down in a darkened room and sob quietly about the prospect of twenty years of unbroken Tory rule.
On the other hand, Theresa May has obviously been staying up late at night watching DVDs of the Godfather movies (I and II; not III; she might be a Tory but she’s not an idiot) and it has been Michael Corleone’s line about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer to which she has paid the most attention. Some say Boris has been made Foreign Secretary so that he will spend his life at international conferences and on planes, a combination of perpetual jet lag and Delhi-belly stopping him from plotting her downfall. Others think he has been set up in hugely demanding role, that requires mastery of detail and great tact, because he is bound to fail and can be then neatly dispatched.
Yet another similarity is the pair’s seemingly poor choice in friends. Boris’ Brexit buddy, Michael Gove, suddenly transformed from an irritating, specky, know-it-all to the love child of Lucretia Borgia and Niccolò Machiavelli, perhaps provoked by Boris’ lack of true commitment to the cause. But he severely underestimated how indispensable Johnson’s appeal in the Shires has made him to the Conservative Party. For now. Boris simply spent twenty-four hours stumbling around looking like a bewildered Labrador, scolded for eating from an unattended table, and, sooner than you could say, ‘Est tu, Michael?’, Theresa May ditched Gove in a manner that left us in no doubt that she believes revenge is a dish best eaten red hot. Similarly, Jeremy’s alleged mates in the IRA and Hamas are almost as unsavoury.
Both politicians share unconventional relationships with the media. Johnson is catnip to journalists. The story just writes itself, with plenty of time left for a long lunch on expenses. Editor screaming for a shot of a fat man in a suit holding two Union Jacks while suspended from a zip wire? Look no further. Conversely, Corbyn is the first political leader in history to shun publicity. Even the brooding Che Guevara had his own line in t-shirts and berets. There is as much chance of getting a soundbite and a photo op from Jeremy as Erdogan asking the Turkish Army to take charge after all. Or Boris apologising for suggesting that said President’s relationship with certain hardy, domesticated, ruminant mammals was more than just platonic.
There are two areas of strong difference though: humour and principle. Boris has masses of the former and almost none of the latter. Everything’s a joke. Eventually even him perhaps. Jeremy is the exact reverse. So principled is he that you feel he would never let new facts stand in the way of beliefs that he has staunchly maintained since 1973. Likewise, stand-up is almost certainly not his missed vocation.
At this moment in time both are at the zenith of the powers. All who survey the political scene, from pundits to party activists on both sides of the spectrum, are equally amazed, amused, confused and rather bewildered. Are these two so different and yet so similar men the future or a flash in the pan? Could it be their way or their highway? Personally, I see a poker face to the left of me, a joker to the right. I’m stuck somewhere near the middle. What about you?
*the planets next align in 2854; therefore likely to be considerably sooner than the workers of the world uniting.