The Clown and the Constitution

21st March 2021

Sometimes the usual superlatives do not seem enough – ‘brilliant’, ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ do not give justice to a thing.

So all I can aver is that the article ‘The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool’ by Edward Docx is perhaps best piece of contemporary political observation and analysis I have come across for a long time.

If you have not read it, go and read it now – else the rest of this post will make little sense.

And if you have read it, go and read it again.

This is because there is no way that a summary of that article by me will be adequate.


Everything Docx says that touches on certain law and policy issues over the last few years is true.

Brexit is indeed ‘an act of symbolism at the expense of everything else.’

The lack of seriousness about law as an illustration of the the lack of seriousness generally:  ‘the teetering unicycle of Johnsonian buffoonery – A-levels, school meals, foreign health workers and more. A country of tumbling catastrophes. Trampolining absurdities. Go to work. Don’t go to work. A country proroguing parliament illegally here, trying to break international law there.’

The dislocation between the heady claims of political language and the mundane realities of political substance: ‘we became a country in which there was only the mock heroic – a “world beating” country that would “strain every sinew” and give “cast-iron guarantees” while bungling its plans and breaking its promises. A country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles” and act “as the supercharged champion” of X, Y, Z. A country on stilts – pretending that we had a test and trace system that was head and shoulders above the rest of the world.’

The nature of the campaign for Brexit and the insincerity of Boris Johnson’s role: ‘the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Steve Baker, Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey et al – were never more than a dim congregation of rude mechanicals. And what they required to win was someone who instinctively understood how to conduct a form of protracted public masque.’ 

And so on.

Docx’s depiction of the character and approach of the current prime minister is unmatched.

Falstaff, the Fool, the Clown, has indeed taken over as king.


At the end of Docx’s article, however, he posits that there are hard challenges that cannot (easily) be avoided by the clowning prime minister:

‘The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew. Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king. Everyone can see: the plates are all in pieces on the floor.’

One of these challenges is more policy than law – the many serious failures of the government United Kingdom in respect of the Covid pandemic.

Here Docx points out that Johnson is now seeking to tell a story so as to lift him out of any culpability:

‘Are we supposed to forget this legacy and “move on”? That is what Johnson is now tacitly suggesting. Like all storytellers, he knows the public remember endings, less so beginnings and seldom the middle. He did all he can, he says. He knows it’s not true, but that is what he is selling.’

Here Docx appears to be doubtful of his own plate-smashing analogy.

People may elect not to see the damage: Johnson can – and may well will – distract us by more plate-smashing: world-beating plate-crashing, no doubt.

The other challenge, however, is squarely constitutional.

And that is the future of the union.


Docx rightly observes that there is a pending constitutional crunch: ‘the realm really is still falling apart. Johnson’s predicament could not be more starkly illuminated than by the next existential challenge he faces: to do with the very nature of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.’ 

Johnson’s predicament here affirms the truth of the old Hebrew proverb about the difference between a clever person and a wise person: a clever person can get out of situations that a wise person would not get into.

The lack of wisdom here, however, is not that just of Johnson.

The folly of the in/out referendum was that of David Cameron, and the infliction of a ‘hard Brexit’ (with the United Kingdom outside the European Union customs union and single market) was by Theresa May.

Wiser heads – who realised the precariousness and fragility of constitutional arrangements – would not have risked the future of the United Kingdom, as Cameron did, on one turn of pitch-and-toss.

Nor would they have insisted on an extreme form of Brexit in the first few months after the referendum, as May did.

Johnson was not responsible for either of those two calamitous decisions, which in turn have created what Docx rightly calls the ‘existential challenge’ of keeping the union together.

The fool may have become prime minister – but only after the two previous prime ministers had made the most foolish of decisions.

And given those foolish decisions – and their necessary implications for the position of Northern Ireland – then there is not a great deal that Johnson can do.

The clown has not so much taken over the stage: it is more that supposedly wiser rulers have left the stage to the clown alone.

And, of course, Johnson will approach the problem with his strategic dishonesty and tactical buffoonery – but, frankly, what else has he got?

The constitutional logic of the Brexit that was in place before he became prime minister will continue to unfold.

Slapping sticks is perhaps all that is left.


All this said: never underestimate the trickster.

A clever person may be the one who gets out of situations that a wise person would not have got into – but the clever person may still do so all the same.

And as Docx avers: ‘the clown is always in a deeper relationship with the audience than with his ostensible subject.’

The plates that may now smash will be as big as the union itself.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may not last another few years in either form or substance.

But the clown-king may still be able to get away with it – and still be prime minister of whatever is left, with claps and cheers for more.

The audience may never see or care what damage is done in the meantime.

And this is not just because of the skills and talents of the clown-king but because of the stage we are now at in the story of Brexit and the United Kingdom – to use a phrase of Johnson’s earnest antonym as prime minister – there may be no real alternative.


“Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?”

– Act V, Scene 1, A Midsummer Night’s Dream



Thank you for reading this post.

If you value this free-to-read post, and the independent legal and policy commentary this blog and my Twitter feed provides for both you and others – please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

26 thoughts on “The Clown and the Constitution”

  1. Falstaff is not quite who he seems. His persona hides a thoughtful character, never more so than when at the Battle of Shrewsbury …

    Prince Henry: “Why, thou owest God a death.”

    Exit the Prince.

    Falstaff: “Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No: or an arm? No: or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.”

    Now exchange sovereignty for honour and read again.

    As a Grade 6 for whom I worked for a while was wont to observe on occasion, “Fine words butter no parsnips.”

  2. As an aside, going by the quotes from Hamlet in the original article, Shakespeare must have been really hacked off with the company’s resident clowns when he wrote the play!

    The little dog appears to have escaped his wrath, though.

  3. It seems to me, pessimist that I am, that Johnson is in a win-win situation with Scottish independence. If the SNP mess up their winning position, he can present himself as the hero who saved the Union. And if they leave, the balance of the Commons shifts distinctly to the right, making it that bit harder for England to dislodge the incumbent government. Commentators tend to assume a Tory PM couldn’t survive the ending of the Union, but the modern-day Tory party is devoted to Brexit above all other things so I’m not convinced that still holds true. Plus, Johnson has already survived several things which should have been career-ending. Scandal doesn’t stick to him.

    Northern Ireland going might be more damaging, but that seems further away based on current opinion polls. So realistically we need to find a way of persuading the people of England and Wales to care that they’re being lied to (as David often observes). Or just accept that Johnson is here until the Tories decide that someone else will be better placed to win an election.

      1. The latest news from Northern Ireland is that the Loyalists are ramping up their terrorist activities, for example, threatening Irish Government Ministers with letter bombs.

        One bomb hoax at a lorry park in Solihull or Warrington might change everything for Johnson, especially with his plans to reduce the British Army’s boots on the ground.

        UDA/UVF outriders have developed a nice line in the use of fake pipe bombs. Fakes they have been using in recent months in Northern Ireland.

    1. If the Scotland were, somehow, to make good its escape from the UK, it would leave a very big hole in the British state: not just 59 empty seats in the HoC, but big trouble in the defence structures (Trident ordered to go from Faslane); the UK’s place in the UN Security Council would be put in doubt. The ripples would certainly reach Wales, which has an increasingly broadly based national movement. And I believe the just nascent progressive English national movement would get a large boost. Within a destabilized UK, Scotland would be showing the way – with a codified constitution, proportional voting, and a visibly diminished royal presence. I can’t see Johnson or his party doing well out of this.

  4. The fool may not have made the first two disastrous decisions but his presence and pressure greatly influenced them and he therefore deserves to own this even more

  5. It is an excellent piece, ably skewering the personality flaws of our Prime Minister.

    But, notwithstanding: the dire economic fall out from Brexit; the running sore created by placing Northern Ireland in limbo, both in and out of the UK and in and out of the EU; the many tens of thousands of excess deaths from coronavirus due to locking down too late three times; the unbelievably expensive shambles of test and trace; blatant corruption in procurement; millions of people having inadequate economic support for a year; the own goal of “awarding” NHS workers a 1% pay rise (clap clap) while spaffing billions on military hardware; a year of rule by increasingly unclear ministerial decree and conflicting guidance, both applied in an inconsistent manner; a collapsing justice system; police violently breaking up a vigil for a woman killed by the violence of a policeman; attacks on civil rights and the rule of law; yet further demonisation of foreigners and immigrants; an attempt to ignite a culture war against “woke” radicals such as the National Trust or the RSPB; repeated dire mistakes over exams and schools; illegal prorogation of Parliament, eye tests in Barnard Castle, and bullying in the Home Office; resignation of law officers and senior civil servants in protest at this government’s actions; a tame media largely parroting the government’s line; and all the rest of it — notwithstanding all of that in just the last 18 months – the Conservatives still have a lead in the opinion polls, and the Opposition do not seem able to oppose effectively yet.

    There should be another general election within the next three to four years. I see no prospect of this government moderating its tone or actions, yet it could easily win the next election. It could be much more like 1987 or 1992 than 1997, and Kier Starmer is no Tony Blair. Just imagine what this country could be like if we continue on this track until 2029.

    1. Keir Starmer’s Milne is another Milne, out of the sort of stable that brought us Lady Claire Regina Fox.

      Historians of the future will wonder how the members of tiny factions on the Hard Left, where it shades into the Hard Right, became centre stage and poisoned our politics.

      Starmer’s senior adviser, whom he personally appointed, last ran a political campaign over twenty five years ago as a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party whilst at university. She also disparaged New Labour in office.

      But she has written a book about the white working class so she knows me and mine better than we know ourselves.

      Starmer, the son of a toolmaker needs such a one to connect with the working class.

      1. As increasing inequality accelerates, & the power, wealth & income of rentier capitalists increases, extremes will prosper. People simply will not be content with being poorer, much poorer in many cases, than their parents generation, especially if their parents were poor as well, & the trend is accelerating, the pandemic has turbocharged it. It seems unsustainable that the very richest have got richer through the contraction of the economy during Covid, even as others have been drained of wealth or tipped into destitution. Unsustainable but yet, apparently not to be changed. The inability of our democracy to improve things for a growing percentage of people, perhaps tending to the majority as those living in the paper fortunes Thatcher bequeathed them start to die off, especially via the ‘great flipping of the table’ that was Brexit, has consequences for our democracy & for us.

  6. It would be interesting to hear your assessment of any potential legal and constitutional issues that maight be raised by:
    – the undoing of the 1921 partition and 1801 union;
    – the undoing of the 1707 union
    – the dissolution of England&Wales into England and Wales

  7. I didn’t see the original comment by Sam McBride in the Belfast News-Letter, but saw this earlier today on a local politics blog:

    “Even in this political age, there’s something rather remarkable about this: Boris Johnson said he’d never agree an Irish Sea border, then agreed it, denied he’d agreed what he’d agreed, then implemented it…and now says there must not be an Irish Sea border.”

  8. Many moons before he became PM I termed him a blood idiot. Nothing I have seen since suggests that I was wrong, he is a bloody idiot.

    So my question for all of you is what does that make the 13+ million people who voted for him?

    1. I used to think the same of Farage to take just one examples but now realise that we live in a period of reality politics and anyone who thinks good sense and liberal values will succeed will be disappointed. In a Democracy the numbers are all that count in the end. If you play the game and win that’s all that matters. Trump learnt that and couldn’t find a way back when reality caught up with him.

  9. Another piece similar to Edward Docx’s “Clown King” article:-

    This blog frequently puts forward the view that the problem is not so much the fact that Prime Minister Johnson lies but that many people do not care about, or are prepared to overlook or forgive, the fact that he does. The answer, or at least part of the answer to this problem, is that there appears to be little that can done to change the current situation. This creates a sense of helplessness, there is nothing that can be done but to brace for the inevitable collision.

    Peter Oborne’s “The Assault on Truth” provides an analysis of the state of affairs that has led to the current situation. The concluding chapter lists a number of recommendations for those people who do care about the fact that Johnson has lied (repeatedly) and do wish to do something about it, including taking legal action.

    The group of people who do care whether the Johnson administration lies must include the EU. It must now decide whether it should formally ratify the EU-UK trade deal. There appears to be a risk that it will not:-

    Given recent experience of implementing the trade agreement in Northern Ireland, why should the EU now consider that the Johnson administration will now adhere to the terms of any trade agreement designed to preserve and uphold the integrity of the single market?

    An option open to the EU would be refuse to ratify any trade agreement with the UK unless and until the UK has demonstrated that it has effectively addressed the domestic rule of law defects in the Brexit process. Specifically, this would include an investigation by the CPS to determine if Johnson, Gove and Cummings “overawed” MPs during the period 2016 to 2019, a criminal offence for the purposes of section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848.

    (For more information on section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848 and its application to the Brexit process see previous comments below the blogs posted on 14 September and 26 December 2020, which in turn refer to a series of five articles published in the New Law Journal between 2017 to 2020.)

    1. We are now out of the EU and we can’t expect ‘Europe’ to come riding to our rescue. The EU will try very hard to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work, and in that it has a powerful ally in the Biden administration. But I can’t see it intervening to the extent of demanding that the UK addresses its ‘domestic rule of law defects’, which would be highly provocative and would play into the hands of the English-British nationalist-sovereigntists, who would no doubt threaten a no-deal Brexit all over again, something which is not in the EU’s interests.

      This is our mess – a British mess, and, as Edward Docx illustrates, an overwhelmingly English one (one that, as he says, the other ‘home nations’ of the [Dis]United Kingdom are increasingly impatient with), and we have to try to sort it out ourselves.

      1. If I’m allowed to reply to my own reply… I would suggest a good start to addressing the problem that is Johnson might be to recognise the extent that, despite the Union flags, he is a distinctively English figure, and that his popularity rests in large part on his being able to tap into reserves of English pride and resentment, which his opponents – not least the Labour Party – can’t or won’t touch or address (note that Irish commentators on Brexit, like Fintan O’Toole and Tom Hayes, have long recognised this distinctively English dimension).

        While Docx is right in seeing the clown or trickster or lord of misrule as a universal figure, Johnson seems able to evoke specifically English forms. Falstaff, yes, also Charles II, at least as he appears in popular culture, making legitimacy fun, “When the King enjoys his own again”, ending the dour years of sourpuss puritans and do-gooding Quakers and bringing back the theatres and unashamed womanising (and plague and fire and defeat by the Dutch, oh and the Royal African Company to profit from slavery…)

        Fictional examples, too, especially in children’s books. There is a lot of Toad of Toad Hall in Johnson, joyriding the constitution off the road into a ditch. Something too of Willy Wonka – like Johnson, an Anglo-American figure – and Brexit as a whole has the character of a vast Roald Dahl revenge fantasy.

        Someone else I keep thinking of in connection with Johnson is that great English actor Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in the Wicker Man (yes, I know the island is Scottish, but the film has a strong feel of Merrie England neo-paganism, ‘Sumer is Icumen In’ and all).

        No doubt other readers can suggest other examples. My point is not to suggest that we could or should deploy English pride and resentment against Johnson. It almost certainly wouldn’t work and it would be far too dangerous if it did. More that we need to do some serious working on our past, German-style (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit) and on how it is expressed in our culture, in order better to understand the Brexit- and Johnson-cult and propose a better, more liberal and inclusive alternative that might have real popular appeal. And yes, I think the ‘we’ here is English people, of all communities living in England, as we are probably too far gone now for a British solution to work (and if it could work it would require a component of English autonomy to do so).

        1. Yes, I’d thought of Mr. Toad.

          How about Harry Flashman, not just the version in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but as imagined by George McDonald Frazer?

  10. I read the original article and my thoughts were that perhaps he is just a clown. Perhaps there is nothing else there. Look at the response to the pandemic, the “cronyism”, the handing over of Gibraltar to Spain and Scotland to the SNP along with 1% to the nurses. What sort of focus groups are they running in Westminster ?

  11. And note Sartre’s example of “Bad Faith” – “Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick. His voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the client… All his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to linking his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness).

  12. It is rather obvious that the distracting epilogue being sought is to try to smash the EU. It is to be hoped that the EU is wise enough to sidestep this.
    Whether and how best to suborn things by breaking up the UK is important to understand. It were to be done, best to do it fast and well with a Rejoin end in mind.

  13. A paragraph from Edward Docx’s excellent Guardian article gets into Pseuds Corner in today’s Private Eye.

    I suspect a deliberate attempt by Guardian writers to get into Pseuds Corner. Something from their sports page makes it every time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.