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Boris Johnson is in full campaign mode - but how much Boris is too much?

The Tory leader has been waiting for this election for some time.

Boris Johnson revealed this week he is pro-marmite, but what will people make of him.
Boris Johnson revealed this week he is pro-marmite, but what will people make of him.
Image: Twitter

WHEN POLITICIANS ARE contesting their first general election as leader, there is often an element of the public getting to know the candidate.

Even if that candidate has already been Prime Minister, the public is getting its first chance to weigh up their leadership credentials and deliver a verdict.

It’s a factor that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is going to have to deal with when Ireland’s general election takes place next year.

At that point Varadkar will be pushing two years as Taoiseach and will have to fight the election on his government’s record and not as a shiny, new political leader.

Theresa May had to do something similar in 2017 but even then there was an element of May introducing herself to the public after less than a year as PM. In that case it didn’t go so well.

In Boris Johnson’s case it’s very different. Polling company Yougov rates Johnson as the most well-known politician in the UK along with Jeremy Corbyn.

He is also the most popular, even if his approval rating is at 34%. Unsurprising perhaps, he is the Prime Minister after all, but he was also rated as the most popular while his predecessor was in Number 10

The perception and awareness of Johnson across Britain comes on the back of almost 30 years in the public eye, first as a controversial but popular journalist and then as a popular if somewhat unpredictable politiciaan. 

RTÉ’s Europe Editor Tony Connelly is among those who’ve said that Johnson has a lot to answer for over how he “caricatured” the EU during his time as a reporter in Brussels. 

In his political career Johnson was somewhat of a caricaturist too, only in this case it was himself that he was trying to portray.

His appearances in the media on shows like Have I Got News For You showed an apparently hapless but harmless figure that was always ready to poke fun at himself. It allowed him to be seen as more of a celebrity than a real politician.  

That perception allowed him to be elected twice in the personality-driven London mayoral contests and these successes meant his name was talked about more seriously as a future leader. 

tory-leadership-race Boris Johnson stuck on a zip wire while promoting the London Olympics. Source: PA Images

After backing the successful Leave campaign, which David Cameron has said was driven by Johnson’s own political ambitions, he dodged the leadership race that followed. 

Instead, he became foreign secretary and a thorn in May’s side before romping to the leadership when she was deposed by her party.

Now Johnson faces an election campaign as Conservative leader and the wider public’s perception of him will actually be tested. His party has put huge stock in the belief that he can win a majority and it now faces the difficult task of managing him correctly.  

In his successful Tory leadership campaign, Johnson ducked out on many one-on-one interviews early on and also avoided debates until later in the race when the result already seemed clear.

Now in the teeth of a general election campaign the Tories haven’t hidden Johnson away but his appearances have nonetheless been carefully managed. 

The Prime Minister was criticised for his delay in visiting flood-hit parts of Yorkshire and when he did go he was met with the exact kind of negative response you’d expect

But politicians getting the cold shoulder when campaigning certainly isn’t anything unusual and it isn’t likely to be terminal.

It’s far from the first time that Johnson has been berated while out in public either. 

prime-minister-boris-johnson-visits-whipps-cross A father of a young girl who confronted Boris Johnson in a London hospital earlier this year. Source: Yui Mok/PA Images

At a time when anger with politicians is probably at all time high in the UK, some negative interactions aren’t alone going to derail a campaign.

Instead, hiding Johnson away when his comparative popularity is an asset would probably be a bigger mistake. 

The Tories have shown a willingness to lean into Johnson’s style during the campaign and the ‘election broadcast’ he shared on Tuesday was the epitome of that so far. 

The video showed Johnson rambling about his campaign HQ while answering questions about what he made for dinner the night before pivoting to questions on Brexit. 

It led to comparisons with David Brent, which trended after it was released, and outright derision when he named The Clash among his favourite bands, such is the disparity between their politics.

There was even ‘outrage’ about how he made his cup of tea

Tweet by @Boris Johnson Source: Boris Johnson/Twitter

The video was clearly ridiculous in the purest sense in that it was almost designed to provoke ridicule. That this was what happened clearly won’t worry the Tories too much. 

The perceived wisdom party in electing Johnson as leader was that only a populist who posed an everyman could fight the challenge posed by Nigel Farage.

Now with Farage’s Brexit Party seemingly shirking away from an all-out fight with the Tories there’s perhaps even more space in that niche for Johnson. 

This was on show again on Friday when Johnson was put forward for a barrage of media appearances. His appearance on an hour-long radio phone in allowed him to demonstrate an air of affability as he was challenged repeatedly for straying from the facts.  

His reluctance to speak about his children’s education was perhaps understandable but his refusal to answer exactly how many offspring he has certainly won’t help foster that everyman image. 

This was made even more apparent when, in a separate interview, Johnson struggled to answer exactly what it was that made him relatable. 

But even if the Tories are letting him out on the campaign trail, there is some evidence that the party is reluctant to let the handbrake off completely.

You might notice, for example, that none of his media appearances were a sit-down interview with a journalist on a news programme. 

Speech

On Tuesday night Johnson’s team released a campaign speech he was due to give the following day at electric taxi factory. The speech contained a reference to Labour’s policies as being driven by “self-obsession and onanism”, or masturbation to you and I.

The reference led to a spike in Google searches for ‘onanism’  but come speech time Johnson didn’t use the term at all.

This was noticed by reporters and the Prime Minister was asked about it

“All I can say is that a stray early draft seems to have somehow found its way into your otherwise peerless copy,” Johnson said. 

Nobody was buying it though and it seemed clear that either Johnson or his handlers had decided that pretty much calling Corbyn a masturbator would have been a step too far. 

Of course, how Johnson campaigns will only be part of deciding whether forcing the election was a good idea or not.

Even in an election where Brexit looms large, voters are likely to vote as much on policies as they are on personalities. There is evidence that the Tories have realised this and in a contrast to two years ago have decided spend big in order to win. 

While two years ago May famously said there “wasn’t a magic money tree” to fund government spending, this time around the Tories are promising an extra £20 billion a year on roads and other projects.

It’s a gamble that’s as big as the one the party placed on Johnson being able to win, but with so much at stake in this election the Tories have clearly decided that both are risks worth taking.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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