Boris Johnson’s growing problems are a treasure trove for satirists

LONDON – A politician’s troubles are a comedian’s treasures.

Scandal-prone British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given cartoonists and meme-makers unimaginable riches for years, and with his grip on power now under threat, their fortunes are only growing.

Johnson and his staff face civil and criminal investigations into social gatherings they held last year as the rest of the UK cowered under coronavirus restrictions. The episode raises serious questions about Johnson’s leadership and political accountability.

But what gives it more bite – and gives comedians a lot to eat – are the often ridiculous details: political aides carrying suitcases of wine into the prime minister’s residence or drunk breaking a swing belonging to the son of Johnson.

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A recent newspaper cartoon captured the collision of tragedy and farce by portraying Johnson as the betrayed Roman ruler Julius Caesar, stabbed in the back with corkscrews.

Martin Rowson, political cartoonist for The Guardian newspaper, argues that mockery is one of the compromises in democratic societies between the government and the governed: “They have the power and we have the right to mock them”.

Britain has a long and proud tradition of political satire. In the 18th century, cartoonists such as James Gillray ridiculed British politicians and royalty with an irreverence, even spitefulness, that shocked many European visitors.

British television shows like “Spitting Image”, with its latex puppet politicians, carried on the tradition in the late 20th century. These days, internet videos and memes have joined the fun.

When Johnson became prime minister in 2019, some feared he would be hard to satirize because he was already a cartoon character, with his stubble of blonde hair, rumpled clothes and swaggering ways.

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Steve Marchant, learning coordinator at the Cartoon Museum in London, says they needn’t worry: Johnson is a gift for comedians.

“All you need to draw is an egg with straw on top and you have Boris before you even try to draw the face,” Marchant said. “And he’s so – gaffe-prone is probably the polite term I should use. Every week something happens with Boris. No cartoonist will die poor because of Boris Johnson’s antics.

This, after all, is the erratic politician who once dreamed of being ‘reincarnated as an olive’, who offended everyone from the people of Papua New Guinea to the citizens of Liverpool and who once got stuck in the lurch. air on a zipline while waving two Union Valets.

Rowson says Johnson’s cartoonish persona is deliberately crafted. He is the latest in a long line of politicians who have “played at being caricatures” to keep themselves in the public eye.

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“Even if we ridicule them at the same time, it’s a price to pay for them,” Rowson said.

Even so, not all publicity is good news for politicians.

Much of the humor around “partygate” has an undercurrent of anger. One of Rowson’s recent cartoons depicted Queen Elizabeth II wearing a gas mask to protect herself from the rotten smell of Johnson and his Tory government wading through a swamp behind her. It was inspired by photographs of the monarch sitting alone wearing a black mask at her husband Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, the day after one of Johnson’s staff parties.

One of the most popular parodies of the “partygate” scandal is a video by the protest group Led By Donkeys which inserted Johnson into the hit crime show “Line of Duty.” Thanks to digital cut-and-paste, Johnson became a grilled suspect by the show’s anti-corruption police unit for hosting illegal parties during the lockdown.

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“You must think we were born yesterday, man!” Ted Hastings, the show’s lead police officer, played by Adrian Dunbar, thundered in the video, which has been viewed millions of times on social media.

Led By Donkeys has been mixing humor and activism since 2019, when a group of friends got together to explode what they saw as the lies of the politicians who took Britain out of the European Union. Named after the description of British soldiers in the First World War as “lions led by donkeys”, the group erected billboards exposing the Brexit campaign’s hypocritical claims.

He has continued to castigate the government’s response to the pandemic, recently parking a video screen showing the testimonies of bereaved families outside Conservative Party headquarters.

Oliver Knowles, one of the band’s founders, said the “Line of Duty” video struck a chord as it sparked anger felt by many people.

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“If you haven’t made your own sacrifices during lockdown then you know someone who has,” he said. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the nation is suffering.

“And I think in that context, those parties – plural – of Johnson are very, very detrimental. In fact, I think it’s going to be hard for him to recover from. I think we are now at the place where he is the prime minister who partied while the rest of us followed the rules.

It is doubtful that mockery alone can trigger political change. But Rowson said the political humor serves an essential purpose.

“We use laughter a lot as a survival tool,” he said. “If we didn’t, we would go mad with existentialist terror.”

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