Written by Lodestone Associate Andrew Gimson, Contributing Editor to ConservativeHome, and author of Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson once said there is method in Donald Trump’s madness. The same could be said of Johnson’s general election campaign.
He has exploded the assumption, held as an article of faith by our political class, that one of the chief duties of a professional politician is to avoid making gaffes. Johnson makes gaffes all the time. In the last few days he has demonstrated, while receiving an unfavourable reception at the Yorkshire floods, his inability to use a domestic mop. And there are those who maintain, after seeing his most recent party political broadcast, that he does not know how to make a cup of tea.
But that broadcast was watched by millions more people than usually bother with such propaganda. Johnson knows how to command an audience by putting on a show. He discovered while still at school that forgetting, or seeming to forget, his lines elicited more laughter than giving an immaculate performance. That was how, 20 years ago, he became a star of Have I Got News For You.
Part of the joke of this sort of behaviour is that not everyone finds it funny. Those in authority regard it as disgraceful, but their fury tends to increase everyone else’s enjoyment. The British idea of liberty is bound up with the freedom to laugh at powerful people who take themselves too seriously.
And that is part of the method in Johnson’s madness. His irreverence puts him on the side of the people. It is very difficult, in this election, to dismiss him as some stuffed-shirt Establishment figure who thinks he can just order the rest of us around.
He also gets credit for bravery. His performances are more contrived than they appear, but are so numerous that the viewers know he cannot have spent much time in rehearsal. He takes the risk of doing things impromptu. For Johnson, this is essential: he would be bored to death by a life without spontaneity.
And here we reach the heart of the method in his madness during this campaign. The great danger, from his point of view, is that having called a Brexit election, people will get bored during the campaign, and become ready to be persuaded that the election is actually about something else.
Beneath all the improvisation, there is in fact a script Johnson is sticking to. It consists of three words, “Get Brexit done”. That is a strong message, and one he has managed pretty much to monopolise. He is squeezing the life out of the Brexit Party. Voters know that if they want Brexit done, they have to vote for Johnson. In the West Midlands, which I visited at the start of the campaign, I found traditional Labour voters highly receptive to this message.
Meanwhile the Remain side of the argument is divided. Labour’s policy is far from clear. True believers in Remain are tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats, but worry that doing so could play into the Conservatives’ hands. The divisions among the Tories who lost the party whip on the Brexit issue illustrate the inability of Johnson’s opponents to get their act together.
So the Prime Minister is on course for victory. But sitting on a lead during a general election campaign is never a comfortable thing to do. It didn’t work well for Theresa May. She was such a dull performer, and so bad at reacting to unexpected events, that people turned away from her dreary message and started talking about other things.
Johnson is determined not to let that happen. He will continue, to the best of his considerable ability, to make the election an amusing rather than a tedious spectacle. The remorseless logic he is imposing on left-wing Leave voters – abandon your traditional loyalties and vote Conservative, for that is the only way you will get Brexit – is made to sound less ruthlessly coercive because he also entertains these people.
The flaws in our palpably imperfect Prime Minister help bring him closer to the voters. As a not entirely sober woman in her 40s put it to me in a pub in West Bromwich, when I reported a fortnight ago from that town for ConservativeHome: “I will definitely vote for Boris, liar, cheat and fool! And for Brexit! I want to get out.”
And Johnson has visited about a hospital a week since he became PM. He has not left his NHS flank unguarded. One Nation conservatism, or Tory democracy as it used to be known, means forming an alliance with the working class, whose interests are better defended by proud, patriotic, wealth-creating Conservatives than by Jeremy Corbyn.
Whenever I meet people who work for Johnson, which is quite often, I am struck by how much they seem to be enjoying themselves. He and his team are confident they can avoid the grotesque errors made in the 2017 election campaign. The manifesto will contain no blunders like the dementia tax.
Here is a Prime Minister who knows exactly what he is doing, and who leads from the front. The press will try to extract, from the television debate between Johnson and Corbyn on Tuesday night, evidence that this election is still a two-horse race. It will be surprising if the wider public sees any sign of that.