Mike Wayne finds that Boris Johnson is not turning out to be the campaigning dynamo the Tories had hoped for
History repeats itself, but in a curious reversal of Marx’s famous dictum, the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy (at least from a Tory perspective). In 2017, Theresa May’s attempts at mounting an electoral campaign went horribly wrong, from her stilted encounters with carefully selected members of the Conservative party cunningly disguised as normal members of the public, to her shrill ‘Nothing’s Changed’ debacle once it was clear that, well, everything had after the Tories announced that social care would be paid by handing over your housing assets (if you have any) to the private care companies and the banks.
In 2019 though, both the conservative and liberal establishment thought that Labour were unlikely to stage a spectacular comeback in the polls not least because they were up against Boris Johnson - the Tory equivalent of Carlsberg, the seasoned and dynamic campaigner who had won London not once, but twice for the Conservative Party as Mayor.
Wouldn’t it be a tragedy though if the man who wanted to be World King when he was a child, turned out to have peaked too early and in the most important election of his life, discovered that he was barely a notch up from May’s dismal performance? It certainly would be a tragedy for the Tories who bet the house on him.
Johnson tried stepping out of the Tory bubble on a number of occasions prior to the launch of the election campaign. In September when like Prince Hal (or perhaps Falstaff) he promised he’d make the ultimate sacrifice in a ditch to get Brexit done, he visited a number of Northern towns to test out his popular touch. In Doncaster however, a sensible woman told him that he was telling ‘fairy tales’ about Brexit and lambasted him about Tory cuts to public services.
Days later, retreating back to more manageable and staged photo opportunities in hospitals, he was cornered by Omar Salem at Whipps Cross, who told him that the hospital was understaffed and that his presence was a PR stunt. Johnson opened his mouth and the first thing that tumbled out was an instantaneously disprovable lie. ‘There’s no press here’ he blurted before realising his mistake as Omar gestured to the television cameras watching him squirm just yards away.
With the election now underway, Johnson’s handlers are going to even more extreme lengths to protect their man from encounters with the public. At a school in Nottingham, sixth form pupils who may have spoiled the occasion were ordered to stay in their classrooms like prisoners as the PM made clay models with distinctly uncomfortable looking younger teenagers who had drawn the short straw to sit at the same table as the Bullingdon alumnus.
But cell phone footage is harder to plan for and in Northern Ireland Johnson was recorded giving a speech in which he contradicted his own Brexit deal by saying that NI companies would not have to fill in any forms when sending goods into the rest of the UK. The media reported the speech as ‘rambling’, and although Boris was holding a glass of water while boring everyone else in the room, it sounded like he had had a touch of the stronger stuff a little earlier.
Then on Monday the BBC used footage from 2016 to show Johnson supposedly laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in 2019. The 2016 footage was from the period when Johnson was practising for a starring role in a new Carry On film by pretending to be Foreign Secretary. In 2019, after just one week on the campaign trail, he was looking a lot less dapper and managed to lay the wreath upside down. By pure coincidence, the BBC mistakenly used the old footage to report on the events of the day before instead of the actual footage from 2019. It is an easy mistake to make, so you can forgive the Beeb. The Daily Express helpfully quoted a spokesman from the British Legion when covering the story who said ‘As far as we’re concerned, there’s no right or wrong way to lay a wreath’, before adding, ‘unless you are that commie bastard Corbyn’ (Ok, I made that last bit up).
Finally, it seemed to have escaped Johnson’s notice that a large chunk of South Yorkshire was underwater at the end of last week and into this. Jeremy Corbyn wrote to Johnson demanding he convene an emergency meeting of COBRA to ensure a sufficiently urgent response. As Corbyn noted, if this was happening in Surrey, the floods would have been quickly declared a national emergency. So it looks as if Johnson can suspend campaigning for votes in Yorkshire as well. How much credit will Corbyn get from the mainstream media, who are perpetually decrying the absence of a ‘real’ opposition figure? Probably little to zero. Just as they have not made the link between the Conservative Party’s newfound enthusiasm for public spending and Corbyn’s break with New Labour.
Judged by the first week or so, Johnson is hardly looking like he is electoral gold. The more people get to look at him, even through the highly protective optics of his media handlers, and the establishment media, the more his braggadocio looks to depend on staggering levels of credulity which hopefully the Labour Party’s campaign can begin to puncture.
Johnson is at the moment supposed to be defending his seat in Uxbridge, but few people would be surprised if he cut and run to a safer seat such as Dominic Grieve’s Beaconsfield constituency. The optics would look bad, all Yellowy and Chicken-like, but discretion trumps valour, even for Johnson, who in his own mind at least, is a figure of colossal historical stature and not at all the pigmy sitting on a Trump-shaped boil at the arse end of a failing capitalist system.
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