Boris Johnson, Rafael Nadal, and why politics isn't sport
I have to admit it’s been hard to get much writing done this week. If I had a timesheet to fill out, I would have to add a row for “Watching Boris Johnson implode”, and a row for “Watching Wimbledon”: these parallel content streams have been sucking up working hours across the nation, contributing to Britain’s already dire rate of productivity, or at least mine. I’ve been grimly fascinated by Johnson’s refusal to succumb to the inevitable, and completely in awe of Rafael Nadal’s insane will to win. In my addled mind, the two stories have started to converge.
The last few days provided some of the most boggling moments in the history of British politics. We witnessed a pratfall ballet, full of self-harming pirouettes. The ministers who accepted promotions from a fatally wounded PM and then, within 48 hours, issued hilariously pompous letters of resignation - what were they thinking? What was anyone thinking? Here’s one of the country’s most prominent political journalists explaining why Nadim Zahawi was super-smart to accept the chancellorship from Johnson - within a day of that tweet, even Zahawi disagreed with him. It was like seeing a rat join a sinking ship, take a quick look around, and jump back into the sea.
Zahawi thus became another formerly credible individual to be dragged into Johnson’s clown vortex. I can see that taking the Treasury job might have made sense, fleetingly, from the perspective of self-interest, but it was clearly never in the national interest to prop Johnson up. There might be a lesson here. In chaotic, fraught situations, it’s usually best to stop trying to play the odds. The smartest play is to admit to yourself that you don’t know what comes next, and just do the right thing. Then, if turns out badly, you at least have the consolation of integrity. When Sajid Javid resigned he could not have known for sure that it would lead to the end of Johnson, and he had clearly reconciled himself to being a backbencher again, perhaps permanently. In his speech, he seemed entirely comfortable with this choice, and all the more impressive for it.
The most boggling event of the week was Johnson’s appearance at the House of Commons Liaison Committee. By this stage, the ministerial resignation avalanche was well underway, and it was very evident that the game was up. Indeed, as Johnson spoke, a delegation of ministers was arriving at Downing Street to tell him, slowly and loudly, that this was so. No sane and rational person could have failed to conclude that this was it - that Johnson had reached the end of everyone else’s tether. Nonetheless, he maintained his pretence that everything was fine, turned up to the Committee, and spent a couple of hours being questioned by backbench MPs about transport policy and agricultural yields.
Now, you could take this as he no doubt hoped it would be taken: as a sign of his seriousness about governing. But his answers were bumbling, he looked tired and dejected, and he was forced to answer questions about whether he had ever used the word ‘handsy’. It was terribly undignified. I thought he might at least use the session as a chance to go down with all guns blazing. Frankly, some of the questioners were there for the taking. But even when under attack, he was passive, low-key, and aimless.
What did he think he was doing that day? I don’t know, but I suspect his behaviour was the result of his own personal version of reality crashing into well, reality. Of course, we all carry around our own versions of the world, and most of us tilt the board in our favour. But politicians have a pronounced tendency to see only what they want to see. When it comes to their own ambitions, at least, they are reluctant Bayesians, who can live with a disjunction between the world as it is and the world as they believe it to be for much longer than most of us. Only when the fit between internal and external reality becomes so poor as to be self-destructive will they reset. That may be viewed as a cognitive flaw but in political terms it’s a virtue too, since it enables politicians to keep striving upwards when the odds are against them, which by the nature of politics they often are. Only the irrational survive.
Even by the standards of politicians, Johnson’s capacity for reality distortion is high. If it weren’t so, he would never have made the transition from minor celebrity to leader of the country. For a long time nobody except him took the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister seriously, and in a sense they were right not to. But he got there. He even won a general election, rather handily (or handsily, if you prefer). Before that, of course, he played a central part in the Leave campaign. When you’ve achieved such unlikely, farcical victories over what everyone else calls reality, it must be very hard to accept it ever again. But sometimes conventional wisdom is correct, and that’s more or less why he ended up, this week, inside a crap Downfall parody.1
At the same time as Johnson was making his last crouch in front of the Liaison Committee, Rafael Nadal was playing the American, Taylor Fritz, for a place in the Wimbledon semi-final. The Spaniard’s body has been slowly collapsing for years now, liked some ruined castle, yet he keeps dragging it back to the courts and finding a way to win (two grand slams this year already). On Wednesday he was clearly not in good shape. He was serving slower than usual, and lost the first set against a much younger player in blistering form.
There was already some strapping over Nadal’s stomach, and it turned out he was carrying a painful abdominal injury. About half-way through the second set, he stopped, and walked off court for a medical break. Remarkably, his own team, which includes his father, were gesturing to him furiously to retire from the match. They clearly didn’t want him to suffer a defeat while doing more damage to himself in the process. Nadal ignored them. He resumed play, and somehow, against all the odds, playing through acute pain, he hacked out a five-set victory.
At the moment he took that break, Nadal’s team had seen the world as it is: their man was a set down, his body was crocked, his opponent was stronger. Nadal himself had seen the world he wanted to see: the world in which he could haul his way back - despite having to play two opponents now, if you include his own body - and win. Through the act of believing in it, he made it possible. It was a triumph of reality-denial, albeit a qualified one: the next day he was forced to announce his retirement from the tournament.
At first I was a little annoyed that Nadal robbed us all of a semi-final (his prospective opponent, Nick Krygios, gets a pass to the final) but on reflection, he did the honourable thing. The only real ethical commitment in sport is to do everything you can to win, within the rules. All other considerations are secondary. Nadal put that commitment over and above the needs of tournament organisers and the career of his opponent, and he was right to do so. Most impressively, he put it above his own body, and his own career (the US Open is only seven weeks away). By submitting to his desire to beat the opponent in front of him, he was honouring the sport. This is what makes sport special. It takes one of our basest instincts and transmutes it into something noble. An individual’s will to win can manifest itself in feats which inspire millions.
Politics doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s similar insofar as, in a well-functioning democracy, the politician’s selfish ambition becomes congruent with the welfare of voters. A politician who wants to achieve victory will first have to work out what voters want and how to deliver it. But the process is bidirectional. It rewards politicians who have their own ideas. Good politicians are always looking for the points at which their own political beliefs and goals match or intersect with those of a greater number of voters. They allow themselves to be influenced by the electorate and they seek to influence the electorate.
Politicians don’t necessarily need coherent political philosophies. But if they don’t at least have consistent instincts for what they want to achieve with power, given the chance, they’re guided only by a will to win. With enough skill and luck, that can get you far, even to the top of government. But, unlike in sport, winning is not an end in itself. Once in power, you need to believe profoundly in some goal other than your own survival or voters will soon come to see you as empty, a hot air balloon. The problem is psychological too: when you don’t believe in anything but yourself, it becomes, paradoxically, harder to believe even in that.
There can be a pathos to the last acts of a leader, even a leader who very much deserves to go. But in front of that committee, and then the next day (after he had finally updated his model of reality and announced his resignation), Johnson acquired no last-minute gravitas. Quite the opposite. What I got from watching Johnson this week was a sense of vacancy, even as he refused to make one.
Commentators were right to criticise his resignation speech for being graceless. It was spiked with bitter little swipes and mirthless jocularity. What struck me, though, was its weightlessness. We were told he’d been up since 6am drafting the text. If so, it was like he’d also knocked out a rather desultory email to a friend and then decided to read that instead. I was only a few points behind in the polls, but them’s the breaks. Resigning from the highest office in the land, he sounded like a man explaining why he’d come second in a pub quiz.
As his hair fluttered around his head, and muffled heckles carried over from outside the Downing Street gates, Johnson seemed absent, somehow. He emanated a strange air of dissociation; of uncertainty about who he was and which plane of reality he was currently in. It was as if he doubted, deep down, whether he had ever been Prime Minister at all.
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