Ever since coming to power, Boris Johnson has acted as if he is a Conservative party leader on the campaign trail. His handlers have done everything in their power to present the best side possible of the new Prime Minister.
That’s not an easy job.
Throughout, his appearances were carefully stage managed, always making sure that the great unwashed — the electorate who have lived with NHS cuts, poor train service, austerity, knife crime, county lines drugs, failing social services, chronically underfunded local government, public sector pay freezes and a decades of austerity — would never be within earshot. The Tory message would always be filtered through the media, who can be handled to the point that only the prime minister’s message can be heard from any event.
But things go wrong. Deliciously so.
In Leeds, as he tried to talk up more power and spending on the north, he was heckled in the street by a man who told him to go back to London to solve the Brexit mess he had created. It just didn’t play well on television, on shared videos, to a wrinkled party leader who simply looked like a deer caught in the headlights by having actually come face to face with one of the great unwashed.
Then there was an appearance at a West Yorkshire Police facility to give a speech that was supposed to be on policing cuts.
When Theresa May was Home Secretary — before she had the opportunity to become Prime Minister as a result of the mess that Boris made by telling enough whoppers to convince the 52 per cent for vote Leave — she cut more than 20,000 police officer jobs. Boris went to Wakefield and stood before rows of police cadets for a photo op to drive home his policy on hiring more officers.
Boris can never stick to a script. The B-word came up, and Boris forgot what he was supposed to say and instead spoke for 45 minutes on Brexit and how he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask for an extension. It was a hot day, and one female recruit behind him fainted. He looked around, saw her on the ground, but carried on speaking anyway. Public school education doesn’t teach you to show compassion or lend a hand to those in distress.
But when Boris goes aboard, it’s much harder to control the optics. The hosts play by their own rules. And that shows up the fact that the emperor might have very few clothes indeed.
It took six weeks for Boris to make his way to Dublin to meet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Traditionally, it’s the first official meeting for any new UK or Irish prime minister seeing as the two nations share a land border. And given that Boris was primarily responsible for Brexit, that land border remains the key issue to him finding any deal on the issue before he ends up in a ditch somewhere.
In Dublin, Varadkar looked assured, confident, detailed in his comments on the current state of non-negotiations between London and the EU. Boris was shifty, trotted out well-polished lines, as sincere as a carnival hoopster.
Boris makes the point over and over again that he’s working hard to reach a deal, that it’s within sight, that there’s movement, that the EU are giving way, that he will get a deal come hell or high water.
Somehow, that’s not the message coming out from any of the other 27 capitals nor from Brussels itself. They say the British come to the table with nothing, no real new proposals on that backstop, that the talks are stalled simply because Johnson’s negotiators have nothing to say.
The great unwashed
But the emperor was truly shown to have no clothes when Johnson visited little Luxembourg on Monday last. Boris was there to meet Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission for Brexit talks. Johnson’s version is that it was a very positive meeting. Juncker? The Brits had nothing new to say and that no deal looked more likely.
So who do you believe?
Maybe the best pointer comes from an empty podium so brilliantly exposed by Xavier Bettel, the second-term prime minister of Luxembourg.
Boris heard British protesters outside the venue, and wanted the press conference shifted indoors. There wasn’t enough room for all of the journalists, so Boris did what Boris does best, and true to instinct and training from those handlers, avoided the great unwashed. Pointing to an empty podium in from of the British flag, Bettel pointedly said the entire mess was the fault of London.
“Our people need to know what is going to happen to them in six weeks’ time,” Bettel said. “They need clarity, they need certainty and they need stability. You can’t hold their future hostage for party political gains.”
Those protesters — part of the 1.3 million Brits living in Europe who have no idea what’s going to happen to them come October 31 or whenever Brexit happens — cheers loudly and applauded.
“So now it’s on Mr Johnson, he holds the future of all the UK citizens and every EU citizen living in the UK in his hands,” Bettel said. “It’s his responsibility. Your people, our people count on you. But the clock is ticking — use your time wisely.”