Er. Yes. ‘Alea iacta est’. Scratch tousled hair in distracted fashion. ‘Ball from the back of the scrum’.
Yes, it’s the Boris Johnson chat. As inevitable as a radio DJ practically blinding himself with pleasure at a ‘sunny day in the greatest city on Earth’.
We at the Round-Up have known the big fella on and off ever since we worked with him at The Telegraph and entertaining and irreverent company he can be.
And there’s the problem d’y’see? Entertaining and irreverent is good in a journalist. In fact, somebody once described good journalism as ‘making someone, somewhere feel uncomfortable’.
Bozza’s good at that. But it is, we must concede, not the first bullet point on the Foreign Secretary’s job spec.
The up-shot is that there’s an awful lot of pointing and laughing going on and, as The Telegraph itself so memorably put it, ‘he wears the required solemnity like an itchy vest’ when going about his government duties.
People boo. And they stick silly signs on his fence. Worse, people call him ‘a liar’. Some of whom, frankly, should exercise some diplomacy of their own. ‘No permanent friends, no permanent enemies’ and all that statesman-like jazz.
The ‘liar’ charge is an easy one to make. Cross a journalist with a politician (or indeed a PR person) and what do you get? The cynic might jest.
But of course, Johnson and the £350m claim (against which as regular readers know, the Round-Up consistently advised) weren’t unique during the referendum campaign in, shall we say, embellishing.
There is, for example, no imminent sign of World War III, punishment budgets nor economic oblivion (of which more later). Neither Leave nor Remain had a monopoly on the pork pie market whatever the post-vote narrative.
But think what you like of his honesty in campaigning, Boris can’t be easily dismissed. Johnson is a bright man. He also led Leave to an unlikely victory and has risen to one of the great offices of state. These are no small things.
True, his capacity to remove his foot from his mouth only long enough to shoot it is undoubted. But in the Foreign Office apparatus and in two seasoned politicians like David Davis and Liam Fox, his margin for self-inflicted wounding is curtailed significantly.
In the meantime, it may be worth remembering that Johnson is a fan of Churchill about whom he wrote a book, The Churchill Factor.
Prior to the Second World War, Churchill’s reputation was, to say the least, dubious. He had crossed the floor, not one but twice, ‘the re-rat’ as he himself called it.
He conceived of both the Dardanelles disaster and the Naval Division’s bloody failure in defending Antwerp in WWI. There was also the drinking and the talent for, er, being witheringly offensive. One could easily argue also that certain of his interventions in the Second World War were catastrophic and his Victorian view of post-war empire wrong-headed.
Ultimately though, his greater achievement prevailed and his reputation with it.
Now, the Round-Up sincerely hopes it won’t be a war that puts the theory to the test but perhaps it’s a greater legacy that is now the Johnsonian aim. It might be worth watching him, he has, after all, a habit of seemingly accidental success. And, if not, out of sheer curiosity.
Truth. Lies. And confirmation bias.
The comedian Stuart Lee once told the story of a conversation between he and a suspiciously stereotypical London cabbie which culminated in the driver saying to Lee ‘well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you’, thus giving everyone the chance to point and laugh at the conveniently bigoted dupe.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. You see the thing about facts is that in isolation they may – only may – be unarguable but curated, collated, pruned and presented they quickly become something else.
This leaves all of us with the daily challenge of separating fact from interpretation whether that comes in the form of analysis, ‘spin’, reporting or ‘narrative’. It’s not easy. It’s rarely binary. And economics suffers from it more than most.
A number of recent ‘facts’ illustrate the problem nicely.
Widespread reporting of the IMFs decision to downgrade Britain’s growth prospects with Sky and BBC Radio covering the move context free but factually enough.
Were the broadcasters guilty of a sin of omission, context being everything? Was the context irrelevant? It is a prediction that Britain will suffer lower growth and it is with Britain that the primary concern lies for Sky. Or, was there confirmation bias at play, one side seeking to demonstrate a post-Brexit weakening another suggesting that it’s relative and even unrelated?
You pays your money – best agree the contract in dollars – and takes your choice.
In much the same vein, the fact of the recently agreed purchase of Cambridge-based software company ARM by Japan’s Softbank was greeted in markedly different ways. Leaving aside, for a moment, the argument over whether it is wise to sell one of Britain’s few world class tech operations into foreign ownership, the BBC and The Telegraph were stark in their approaches.
For the BBC, it was reasonably clear that the Japanese raid was a post-Brexit response to a softer pound and that it had scooped up a bargain to the detriment of UK manufacturing diversity
For the Telegraph, who deployed ‘fact’ by pointing out that the ARM was a dollar booked company and thus the pound argument didn’t apply, the Japanese move was a sign of confidence in the UK economy and a reassuring inward investment.
Again, pick your way through that one and decide, as most people will, according to their predilection for triumph or disaster.
Do you decide a) that the UK is bound to up its defence-spending to maintain its global profile post Brexit, suiting the likes of Boeing or b) decide that the UK’s economy remains a safe bet and the country a key US ally?
It’s all in the telling. You really can prove anything with facts, as any cab driver knows.
I thought I was unlucky because I had no shoes. Until I met a man who had no feet.
As the Round-Up recently suggested, the ‘nation divided’ tale with which we are increasingly presented seems hard to nail down in daily life. A cheeky trip to one of Britain’s beaches this week revealed the multitude all sharing a strip of heated Camber sand, friction-free, as all the world liked to be beside the seaside.
It’s occasionally no bad thing at such harmonious moments to compare and contrast. A brief glance at Turkey, the US or even poor, benighted France is an indication of what a divided nation really looks like.
All things are relative. We take nothing for granted, of course, but the Round-Up wonders if we shouldn’t count our blessings a bit more than we do.
The Round-Up is off air for a spell now. Thank you to the many who have done us the honour of taking a read over the last few weeks. We’re grateful. If not somewhat surprised. Have a good summer.