A strong sense of empires crumbling this week, as Led Zeppelin are no longer the biggest dickheads ever to demand a plane respray. Sliding into the top spot are Boris Johnson and his government, with the prime minister taking time out of accidentally bumping off British citizens to order a £900,000 paint job on his VIP Voyager aircraft.
The only disappointment is that he didn’t reveal the plans at one of the daily No 10 press conferences. Here’s a slide showing how tens of thousands more people than necessary have Sadly Died because of decisions I took or put off taking. But looking at the positives, here’s a slide of the new designs for my plane! As for the respray, I’m picturing something that befits our status in the world. Perhaps giant letters reading “Air Farce One”. The budget option would be to keep it grey and just scrawl a classic across the side, like “CLEAN ME” or “My plane is dirtier than your mum”. If not, maybe Johnson would be drawn to something like “If this plane’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’”, or “Don’t laugh, lady – your daughter could be in here”.
None of these would be any less absurd than the justification for it all by cabinet minister Oliver Dowden. I note that Oliver is a Conservative culture secretary, which has historically been like being the Ku Klux Klan’s equalities wizard. Here he is on Johnson’s paint job: “We really are a creative industries superpower, and we should be promoting that. I think the work on Voyager is part of that.” To which the most reasonable reply is: wut? Still, let’s try to clamber inside the logic simulator and work out what – in the name of his favourite album being a free CD that came on the front of the Sunday Times in 2007 – Oliver is trying to say here. Is it that theatres are in such acute crisis that 75% of them may never reopen, so we need to get this piece of military hardware into the bodyshop? Is it that we made Fleabag, and that’s why my boss needs a penis extension? I’m finding the philosophy somewhat impenetrable.
Then again, Johnson has always seen some mystical correlation between his sense of sexual potency and the success of the nation. He has previously fretted that Trident going to sea without missiles would mean “the whole country is literally firing blanks”. He has described himself as the man “to put some lead in the collective pencil”. And he’d now like us “to have a chlorinated chicken in every port”. Actually, I think I invented that last one – but you’re welcome for the image. We’re all men of the world, and no one said dockside life was for the faint-hearted.
Speaking of grotesque maritime adventures, it feels the moment to turn to one minister’s widely publicised letter to Johnson this week in the wake of his shameful decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office. This requested that the government spend money intended for overseas aid on two new yachts to replace the Royal Yacht Britannia.
The letter was written by Penny Mordaunt, hitherto one of the less lavishly useless ones. When Dominic Cummings broke lockdown to drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight and so on, Tory MPs were swamped by furious constituents. Mordaunt went on record to offer them her “deepest regrets” and say that there were “some inconsistencies in his account of events and the reasons behind it”. In the immediate wake of this, a “well-placed observer” told the Times: “Dom is very vindictive. I think someone like Penny – she’s fucked. I know how they operate and she is in big trouble. They will go after her.”
Alternatively, she might have to pass some mad loyalty test, like having to execute a snitch in an abandoned warehouse in front of her crime boss – or write a letter saying that aid money has to be spent on a yacht. Sorry, two yachts. That, I imagine, is when you lower the gun you were handed, shaking with a mixture of horror, fear, relief (maybe even a tiny trace of exhilaration), and Cummings claps you on the back and goes: “That it’s, Pen. Always knew you were one of us.”
In terms of cultural exports, of course, we are now a country where the foreign secretary informs the world that Black Lives Matter protesters’ taking a knee “seems to be taken from the Game of Thrones” [sic]. Domestically, the DfId/FCO merger is a culture war gambit that reminds us this government will be coming for the BBC soon enough. In that act of cultural vandalism, they will be assisted by various quarterwits on the left who want to privatise a utility currently owned by the public, and who believe that a strong, independent leftwing media will spring up in its place. Just like it has in all the other countries.
Still, no doubt the politicians can visit these on their royal yacht replacement. I’m afraid I don’t yet know the purpose of the second yacht Mordaunt has requested. Maybe some kind of human ark? There may come a point where Johnson’s administration has wiped out so many British citizens that the only way for us to survive as a world-beating master race is to take to the high seas – and they will get higher, if he has his way – where a retinue of women will be impregnated by one hugely self-regarding enthusiast. I can’t imagine who.
In the meantime, surely it’s time to point out that if a telly chef was behaving like Johnson, you know what people would be saying. Let’s look at the evidence: the chap in question has left his wife for someone very much younger. He has recently acquired a dirt bike on which to bomb round the grounds of Chequers. He now wants not one but three ludicrously showy high-performance vehicles. Come on – does the prime minister have to get a Celtic knot tattoo before we can call what’s happening by its name? Does Johnson have to casually push up his sleeve at the dispatch box to reveal a newly inked piece of Route 66 body art, then say to Keir Starmer “I’m headed for the open road of life, mate”? Does he have to be spotted in a terrible leather jacket? Do a triathlon? Learn to surf? If it were anyone else in public life, then the Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine would have written 15 columns about it, so allow me to “go there” on her behalf: the prime minister is having an incredibly cliched midlife crisis, and we’re all having to live in it.
If this was Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood, then fine. I myself would get a couple of columns out of it; and in any case he’s only in charge of a baking tent, a Kawasaki Ninja and a semi-custom Big Dog Ridgeback (I’m told it doesn’t ride as good as it looks). But when they’re in charge of an entire country, shambolic pandemic response and some nuclear codes, it does feel like something we should all keep an eye on. A powerless one, yes: but still an eye.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist