“Gove Story”: The final outing for London’s comedy mayor Boris Johnson

A screenshot from the penultimate episode of "Boris Johnson". Image: Getty.

Back in May, we revealed Boris Johnson’s previously untold origin story. The former London mayor was – this is properly, definitely true, honestly* – really the creation of a pair of British comedy writers, Brienna and Barney Cheatem, and the former Saturday Night Live performer Alex Pfeiffer.

Now, the story concludes...

No one can deny that the two-part series finale of Boris Johnson, the punningly entitled “Gove Story”, was both dramatically satisfying and very funny. In a storyline with more twists than the annotated lyrics of Chubby Checker, viewers were treated to the sight of Boris’ ultimate downfall, brought down by his own sub-Machiavellian machinations.

The story saw the eponymous fictional former mayor of London Boris Johnson (Alex Pfeiffer) deciding to lead the “Leave” campaign in the EU referendum, agreeing to fight for a cause he didn’t believe in and which he didn’t believe could win. His confident expectation was that its disappointed acolytes would make him Prime Minister in the aftermath.

The only problem was that – in a twist straight out of The Producers – the campaign won. The victory left his plans in tatters.


Boris always knew that the “Brexit” campaign would unleash an unprecedented economic, political, diplomatic and constitutional crisis for no reason whatsoever. But his involvement was the culmination of the darkening of the character the Cheatems had begun as long ago as 2009.

“Boris declaring for ‘Leave’ is what we call an ‘Angel kills Jenny’ moment,” comments series writer and Boris co-creator Brienna Cheatem, referring to an iconic scene from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. “Before that, the evil version of Angel is such an entertaining bastard that you enjoy watching him be evil. After that, he’s gone too far, and you want him to be destroyed before he literally drags the entire planet to hell.”

“Boris had to be shown that you can’t game politics – that it’s too important for that,” says Brienna’s writing partner and husband Barney. “There had to be some kind of reckoning.”

Originally, the referendum result was to be the final scene of the series. But quite late on, the Cheatems decided to move that scene back an episode, and have the series final concentrate on the fallout from that moment. As with the original creation of Boris in 1999, the inspiration came from an actor.

“Iwan (Rheon) who played Michael Gove is just brilliant,” says Brienna, “He was a fan of the show, and he had some time between series of Game of Thrones, so came to us about a part.” Gove was originally intended as a background character. But Iwan’s performance was so complex – that bizarre, chewing side-clap was just perfect – that the writers found themselves giving him more and more to do.

“Like Boris, Gove started off as a joke,” says Barney. “This guy who says ridiculous things, but somehow everyone treats him like he’s Bertrand Russell.” Barney had a lot of fun writing some of Gove’s old newspaper columns, often quoted in the show. “The one where he compares the Good Friday Agreement to Chamberlain at Munich was probably the most effective demonstration of the pseudo-intellectual grandstanding we wanted him to be characterised by.”

The writers drew much of their inspiration for the character from another fictional ‘intellectual’. Brienna points to “that bit in Adrian Mole where he joins the gang that bullied him the previous year, so they’ll move onto someone else”. As with Mole, though, the joke was that Gove wasn’t an intellectual heavyweight at all. “He has a 2:1 in English, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of intellectual mediocrity. But he’s capable of abstraction, so the other characters think he’s clever.”

Hubris, meet nemesis

So it was that Gove became Boris’ Nemesis: the joke politician was brought down by another, bigger joke. Gove, having announced that he’d be Boris’ campaign manager for the leadership contest that followed the referendum, launched his own bid without informing his former boss. Boris’ support evaporated instantly.

In a final irony, though, the ostensibly intellectual Gove had no more plan as to how to actually execute Brexit than anybody else – and so it soon became clear he probably wouldn’t win either. Boris Johnson ends before the leadership election is concluded. But the final montage shows sterling in free fall, and Boris’ banker friends telling him they were planning a move to Frankfurt. The final act of London’s comedy mayor was to destroy the rich man’s playground he’d done so much to create.

The Cheatems are now working on a new project. Corbynets is a BBC Three online spin off of BBC Alba’s Cybernats, a dark comedy about how appallingly a movement’s true faithful can behave with online anonymity as their ally. The writers say they haven’t much time to think about what the characters from Boris Johnson would be up to these days. “But the proposed spin off with Boris as the first President of an Independent London is right out,” says Brienna. “That’s too ridiculous even for us.”

All the same, says Barney, “it’s good to be able to work these national issues through on TV. Imagine if these grotesques were real, and had any influence at all on real life. Imagine that their witless petty rivalries and basic lack of character would determine the fate of nations.

“That would be appalling. Too appalling for words.”

He then put his face in his hands and wept.

*It isn’t.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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