Why the Tory leadership contest reminds me of It’s A Knockout - Anthony Clavane

The battle to become prime minister has been compared to The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and The X Factor – the five chaps sitting on their stools during the BBC debate looked like an ageing Tory-boy band re-uniting for one last tour – but the show it reminds me of most is It’s A Knockout.

Either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be the next prime minister. (Getty images)
Either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be the next prime minister. (Getty images)

This is not just because candidates keep getting knocked out until two of them take part in a final voted on by 160,000 Conservative members (97 per cent white, 71 per cent male and overwhelmingly wealthy, according to a recent study).

It is also because one of the staples of the iconic game show, which featured contestants taking part in absurd games, was “playing the joker”. Enter Boris Johnson.

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The former Foreign Secretary has, so far, avoided wearing large foam rubber suits, throwing custard pies and carrying buckets of water over rolling logs whilst outlining his policies on Brexit, tax cuts, social care and education.

But his career has already featured a classic It’s A Knockout moment when, as mayor of London, he waved his flag around to great comic effect whilst being suspended in mid-air on a zip wire.

The point of playing the joker is that you double your points, something those Conservative members – who are expected 
to vote him in as their new leader – hope will happen to their party’s ratings in the opinion polls.

They will have noted that comedians nowadays win elections. Most recently in 
the Ukraine where the funnyman Volodymyr 
Zelenskiy was installed as president. Satirist Marjan Sarec is the prime minster of Slovenia and the former comic actor Jimmy Morales rules Guatemala. A growing number of comedians around the world are turning to politics – with Boris the latest to try his luck.

Known for his comedic prose and general buffoonery, his shambolic persona made its first appearance on the panel show Have I Got News For You in 1998. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, delighting us with his flailing and harrumphing, his self-deprecating charm and his joshing asides, also known as gaffes.

I remember the scene in the sitcom Outnumbered, eight years ago, when a German house guest revealed that his favourite Britsh comedian was “that man who plays a funny character, the fat politician, the blond one, rides a bike.” Hugh Dennis asked if he meant the mayor of London. “Yes,” he replied, “that’s the one!”

Of course, just like Eddie Waring – my favourite host on It’s A Knockout – it is, literally, a persona. Waring, a working-class lad from Dewsbury who rose to become one of the most famous, and impersonated, men in Britain, was perceived to be a buffoon with a bizarre Yorkshire accent and penchant for strange catch-phrases like “early bath,” “up and under” and “rugger-bee-league”.

In reality, Our Eddie was a sharp operator: a canny, deal-making entrepreneur who, at one point, virtually ran rugby league from his base at the Queens Hotel in Leeds. Like Boris, Waring was a talented, pugnacious, well-connected journalist, astutely playing 
the role of the joker in order 
to boost his popularity, 
creating a veneer of harmlessness to conceal his driving ambition.

Johnson, as has been well documented, is anything but a harmless buffoon. Even his new bezza mate Matt Hancock, before dropping out of the Tory leadership race and joining Team Boris, described him as dangerous.

During his appearances on Have I Got News For You, according to one of the show’s writers Dave Cohen, he was “unfailingly the rudest and most unpleasant (guest) during preparation – but as soon as the microphone was switched on he exuded charm and, unlike the others, often stole the show”.

At his first campaign Press conference, reporters who asked awkward questions were booed by his devoted followers. Very Trumpian.

He has tidied himself up for the contest. He has lost weight, acquired a new, smarter haircut. He has, so far, opted for a joke-free, safety-first strategy. Quite boring, really.

It’s only a matter of time, though, before the clownish Boris returns. And when he does, and perhaps feels obliged to call a General Election, I sincerely hope the British public realise the joke isn’t funny any more.