n January last year, Boris Johnson was feeling buoyant. The Conservative Party had won its biggest majority since 1987, the Labour Party had been outvoted into near-oblivion and the Brexit debate that had tortured Britain had finally been put to rest. Johnson, then newly elected as prime minister, decided to bring his optimism online. Tweeting a photo of himself with two-thumbs up and a smile, Johnson posted a simple message to his followers: “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain.”
The tweet, in a typical online fashion, was later ridiculed for its over-optimism. Britain that year had faced an entire year of lockdowns, thousands of deaths from COVID-19 and an economy in recession. When the virus first took hold in Britain, Johnson had decided that what Britain needed, again, was a dose of Johnsonian optimism. During a COVID-19 press-conference, Johnson stood at the central podium and claimed that Britain could turn the tide against the virus in 12 weeks. Of course, none of this was true. But in both instances, Johnson revealed a key aspect of his character: his penchant for optimism.
Johnson’s colourful rhetoric and unassailable optimism has long been a defining characteristic. As a celebrity-politician, Johnson used an overly optimistic approach to politics—along with messy, straw looking hair—to stand out from the political competition and gain national fame. Through optimism, Johnson was able to promise in politics others would not and rally Britain together in times of national criticism. In 2012, when Mitt Romney—the Republican politician from the United States—questioned London’s readiness to stage the Olympic games, Johnson hit back during a rally at Hyde Park: “I think there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson yelled to a cheering crowd. “He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!” Indeed, it has been optimism, that others have noted, that has made Johnson such a formidable politician.
Johnson’s optimism may have been refreshing in the past, but more than any other time in his political career, it is now coming under its greatest level of scrutiny. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson made numerous optimistic claims about Britain’s fight against the virus, but soon learned that what mattered were not empty promises or speeches of hope, but practical results—especially in matters of life and death. Laura Kuenssberg made this clear to Johnson in December of last year: “Through this pandemic, you seemed to have frequently over-promised and under-delivered, whether it’s turning the tide in 12 weeks, calling a second national lockdown a disaster, and that cancelling Christmas would be inhuman…why do you continue to do this?” Johnson responded with his normal blather. Optimism, he realised, had a time and place. A serious pandemic engulfed by false hope was not one of them.
To understand Johnson’s optimism bias, however, is to realise it does not operate on the intuition of hope. Rather, it is to acknowledge that it is the product of a life of privilege that Johnson has led, and a feeling that things just always work out in the end—no matter how bad they get.
Johnson’s optimism bias can confidently be rooted in his world-class education, both at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford. As one of the most renowned institutions in the world, Johnson—although only upper-middle class himself—slowly became part of Britain’s crème del a crème: those with power, connections, glory and wealth. For Johnson, an alumnus of both, it can be difficult to assume that life will never work out in the end: for there is always a connection that can be called, strings that can be pulled or a member of an Old Boys’ Network that can be contacted to alleviate one’s problems. Barack Obama made a similar claim about David Cameron. Writing in A Promised Land, Obama wrote that Cameron possessed “an easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life.” John Bercow, former Speaker of the House, agreed: "[Cameron] has the most enormous, probably public-school-self-instilled, self-confidence. He thinks people like him are born to rule, that the natural order is that people like him run things, and that he is in a superior position.”
But it has not only been Johnson’s background that has instilled him with a predisposition to optimism. It has also been his personal experiences. Johnson has long understood that no matter how bad his life or controversial his actions, that he will largely escape their consequences and in some cases, even come out better on the other side. Take his distasteful comments against Muslims, homosexuals and Africans; his sacking for lying about an extra-marital affair by Michael Howard; his attempt to unlawfully prorogue Parliament; his leaked tape discussing an assault against a journalist; his decision to tell lies on the front of a referendum bus; or his tactical resignation against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. In all of these instances, Johnson faced no career-ending punishments. In fact, the opposite happened: Johnson’s career continued on an upward trajectory, where he was finally rewarded with the office of prime minister and an 80 seat-majority.
The Johnsonian mind, therefore, always has a cause to be optimistic, for Johnson understands he will never face the same realities of politics. He is, to his mind, insulated by his own class, network and social standing. But for the vast majority of the public, they do not share the same political experience. Nowhere was this illustrated greater than Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union.
Brexit, for Johnson, did not have real life practical implications. The implications that did exist were those pertaining to his political ambitions. If Johnson had backed Remain, he would have shown himself to be a moderate and a Cameroon, likely with another cabinet job in the next administration had Remain won. If he had backed Leave, he would have placed himself in opposition to Cameron as the next prime minister and as a darling to the Conservative Party’s grassroot supporters. And this is exactly what happened. Regardless of his decision, Johnson was not subject to the brute political realities, unlike many others, of a Brexit outcome. It was, in other words, a situation lacking in personal political impact.
Contrast this with Peter Wood, a farmer from Gloucestershire who exported eels to Europe and voted Brexit. In an interview with Sky News, Wood expressed his regret for voting Brexit since the decision meant greater red tape and potentially the loss of his business. “You voted Brexit. What do you think now?” a journalist asked Wood. “I think you should be careful what you wish for. I thought we were going to get a global market. But it never turned out like this. I would have never voted Brexit if I knew we were going to lose our jobs.” An extreme example, yes. But the point still stands. Politics has always mattered because individuals are subject to it and face its consequences. For Johnson, not so much.
Johnson’s optimism bias, then, stems from an issue of liability. In British politics, those who make the decisions are not subject to the consequences of those decisions, nor are they held accountable. Nassim Taleb and Philp Tetlock made such a point in their seminal books, Skin in the Game and Superforecasting. For both authors, politicians (or experts, for Tetlock) never face the cost of being wrong. And it is this conundrum that allows Johnson to have the privilege of being optimistic, no matter how drastic the political mistake or blunder. It is a natural reaction to life’s woes, for Johnson will never face the same outcomes as others.
Johnson’s optimism may have been an adept political tool to climb the ladder of politics in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic has called for actionable results, not Johnsonian wishful thinking. Johnson may be optimistic for Britain’s future after COVID-19 and Brexit, but it should be recognised that it is largely a result of a Johnsonian life free from adverse outcomes.