Ephemerant

Tory boys on a charmless offensive

The UK’s had six Prime Ministers over the last 32 years; three who went to public schools (Blair, Cameron, and Johnson), and three who went to comprehensives (Major, Brown, and May). While the second group is generally thought of as weak and unimpressive, they were at least stolid and – although this is no longer fashionable – honest. You just know if you peeled the skin off Gordon Brown, you’d find another Gordon Brown glowering at you underneath. Theresa May is surely as awkward a dancer in any scenario as she is at a party conference. Slicing through John Major, you’d just find smaller Majors, or Minors, all the way down. Notably, missing here is anyone openly venal to the point of corruption. 

Now, let’s turn to the products of our public schools. Tony Blair has spent the last decade hoovering up millions from autocratic regimes like Kazakhstan, helping them spin unfortunate incidents like massacring their own citizens in Zhanaozen and imprisoning opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov. David Cameron was so keen on lobbying for Greensill Capital that he sent grovelling text messages to Michael Gove. There are slime moulds in petri dishes reproducing for crumbs of scientist-administered mycoprotein that have more self-respect than that. And does anyone imagine the post-PM career of the current holder of the position – an intensely lazy recumbent incumbent – will prove even slightly edifying? Do we imagine Boris Jonson’s looking forward to a life of charitable work and small acts of kindness? Or do we see him rubbing his hands as the latest covid death, FO blunder, or sex scandal rolls in, knowing it’s all good for the one remaining thing he looks forward to: the advance on his memoirs?

The PM is just a Gordon Brittas with the physique of a water-damaged Flump

Our public schools have distinctly failed of late, but why? Who’d have thought that creating institutions where ex-military failures and angry paedophiles can vent their frustration on children forcibly separated from their families just when they most need love, could possibly have bad outcomes? Who could have foreseen the downsides of creating a greenhouse for sociopaths? These institutions even fail to provide the most basic of public-school superpowers: charm. I mean that very special kind of charm honed at England’s public schools over years of practice on everyone, from the matron who’s disappointed with what she caught you doing after “lights out”, to the college porter who catches you dangling from your dress trousers after a failed attempt to climb a drainpipe. The brand of charm that gets you out of trouble. 

This charm consists of being able to do a passable imitation of someone who’s utterly contrite, speaks very good English, is less drunk than they seem, and is truly interested in the person who’s about to tick them off. It’s the kind of charm that sends an apology note and a bottle of slightly-too-nice whisky. It’s the type of charm that gets you referred to as “that nice young man” rather than “the bastard who broke my vase.” It’s an incredibly useful cheat code for life – only limited by the fact it doesn’t work on anyone who isn’t English and hasn’t been trained in deference and the subtle readings of class signifiers. 

I have a friend who still uses this technique in every daily interaction. I can only imagine how drained he must be after every act of forced bonhomie, knowing his whole life will be devoted to manipulating people through shoulder-slaps and the provision of very good wines. At least, I think I have a friend who does this. Given his entire personality is devoted to feigning intimacy with strangers, I might just be a person he occasionally tolerates. 

The problem with our current generation of Etonians is they can’t even muster up the charm basics. The whole point is to be utterly at ease with one’s own privilege and help others be at ease with it too. Instead, we get etiolated try-hards like Rees-Mogg, stuffing their heads with The Oxford Book of Quotations to pass as well-read. The Bullingdon lot are even worse. The point of charm is to allow you to behave unforgivably and be forgiven – not to behave unforgivably and be obnoxiously impervious to consequences by luzzing money at it. Most charmless of all, is when people see you trying to wriggle out of misbehaviour. Public school charm is based on effortless ease and a willingness to admit to naughtiness, because we all know it wasn’t that serious and we can “sort it all out without involving the authorities.” 

Johnson’s squirming and shameless blaming of underlings smashes any claims he had to be a “charming rogue”. Instead, he’s a squealing twister, the middle-manager who’ll sell you out at the first opportunity. Had he said “Yes, we had loads of parties. They were brilliant!” he might have retained some people’s affection. As it is, he’s just Gordon Brittas with the physique of a water-damaged Flump. And that’s not the worst of it. We’re left with the fact that the number and type of parties No 10 held suggested they simply didn’t understand Covid-19; a misunderstanding that led to tens of thousands of deaths in the unnecessary waves of late 2020 and early 2021. In short, during a public health crisis the man in charge didn’t believe in following basic social distancing rules, because he preferred infectious diseases to UK citizens. Floreat Ebola. 

We might not have been expecting a paragon of morality, a beacon of honesty, or an exemplar of austere living, but we were expecting charm. Not frantic buck-passing or legalistic weasel-phrasings to dodge responsibility. We had the right to expect the most high-profile product of our public-school system to at least be able to be a charming twat properly.

Without that, what is he? What have we been doffing our caps to?

Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer 

and performer on the TV shows you hate

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