Boris Johnson might model himself on Winston Churchill, but he has “far more in common” with the 19th-century PM Benjamin Disraeli, says Bagehot in The Economist. Disraeli, “the grandson of a Jewish-Italian immigrant who sold straw hats”, and Johnson, “the descendant of Turks”, have both treated the British establishment with an uneasy mix of “contempt and deference”. They both turned themselves into brands: Disraeli with his “trademark curl” of hair, Johnson with his rumpled clothes. Just as the spendthrift Johnson has courted rich donors to help with a Downing Street renovation, Disraeli wrote novels “at speed” to stave off bankruptcy.
Personality aside, two common themes run through their politics. One is the nation-state. Disraeli moulded the Tories into a “national party” that celebrated the “pomp” of empire and promoted “harmony between the classes”. Johnson treats the EU as the “cosmopolitan foil” to his northern-focused, levelling-up agenda. And for both, politics is “less about drafting laws than about spinning stories” with expansive speeches that glorify the past while conjuring up an “even more splendid future”. Churchill’s father summed up Disraeli’s career as: “failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph”. Johnson’s has been just as volatile. Whether it ends in triumph or disaster, “it is unlikely to be in between”.
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