Charlie Cadywould – “Got a history? Get a holding statement”
Eddie Mair: “The Times let you go after you made up a quote. Why did you make up a quote?”
Boris Johnson: “Well, erm, this, again, these are, these are big terms…what happened was, I can tell you the whole thing. Are you sure our viewers don’t want to hear about?…”
No, Mr Mayor, we’d rather watch you squirm. Boris Johnson’s performance with Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr show last weekend – described by the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour with some delight as a “bicycle crash” – may just be the turning point for a career that appeared as though it had only one direction. Just as one arm of the BBC grants BoJo a free piece of PR in the form of Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise – a full hour documentary billed as including “unprecedented access to Johnson himself” – another part has given him a surprisingly rough ride.
Normally the only squirming you see on Andrew Marr’s sofa is a slightly uncomfortable-looking Osborne or Miliband trying to move to the live music accompanying the closing credits. For better or worse, Andrew Marr is no Paxman, and so no-one expected his replacement, Eddie Mair, to go quite so hard on the Mayor. Boris’ father, Stanley Johnson, described the interview as “disgusting”, criticising the BBC for grilling his son about his private life.
We’ve always known Boris was prone to the occasional gaffe but, at least since 2008, many politicos have converted to the idea that all the bumbling is actually an elaborate ploy to mark him out as a “plain-speaking”, more “human” politician. However, the Mair interview was something else: far more serious than getting stuck on a zip-line.
So which is the real Boris? Was this just an off-day, or were these his true colours finally on show thanks to some rare difficult questioning?
Perhaps it can partly be put down to complacency. Hardened politicians should be used to being labelled a “nasty piece of work”, but it rarely happens to one’s face in Andrew Marr’s studio. However, experienced politicians (and indeed anyone with media training), should be prepared for difficult questions that may arise, especially those about past misdemeanours. Surely at some point on two Mayoral campaigns, someone sat Boris down with a list of critics’ likely lines of attack, and systematically went through how to respond? If you have a history, have a holding statement at the ready.
Boris’s confidence – his attitude that in fact the world and its problems are very simple, and he has the common sense answers to solve them – is part of his strength as a politician. His politics generates far less criticism than his peers, and he manages to avoid both “smugness”, which many commentators have ascribed to Osborne, and Ed Balls’ supposed “short temper”. However confidence can easily turn into complacency, which is a disaster waiting to happen. This latest gaffe will probably be forgotten by the public in a week or so, but in the middle of an election campaign, candidates can’t afford any slip ups. Conservative MPs looking at their party’s leadership, including some very senior colleagues recently criticised by Boris, will have a longer memory.
If Boris does become leader of his party, he will have to abandon the notion that he can do without the rigidity of key messages, strict language and prepared statements. Last weekend may cause many to think again about whether Boris is capable of successfully negotiating the big challenges if put under the spotlight of leadership and a general election campaign.
Charlie Cadywould joined PLMR in 2012, working across the technology, law, and health & social care sectors.
James Ford – “Brand Boris will bumble on”
You might have watched it. Maybe you have downloaded it subsequently. Certainly you have heard people talking about it. Boris Johnson got mauled in an interview with Eddie Mair on the BBC on Sunday.
Journalists have been quick to talk up the significance of the event. “Boris Johnson’s gilded reputation maybe be about to lose its shine” opined Sonia Purnell in the Guardian. “After that TV ambush, Boris’s rise doesn’t look quite so irresistible,” chipped in Quentin Letts in the Mail.
The truth is that Sunday’s interview was far from the car crash (or, as the wags at the Guardian have styled it, ‘bike crash’) that some would have you believe. There was nothing new or revelatory in Eddie Mair’s accusations. All these allegations were known ahead of Boris’s campaign for Mayor in 2008. They were trotted out again before last year’s election by Sonia Purnell in her biography of the Mayor. They made little difference to the outcome of either election.
It is almost fifty years since the Profumo scandal helped bring down first Harold Macmillan and then the Conservative Government. The public’s attitude to politician’s peccadillos and morality in general has shifted a great deal. Infidelity registers far less than financial impropriety, abuse of public money or hypocrisy on the public’s Geiger counter of unacceptability.
The public already grant Boris far more latitude than they do other politicians, as David Cameron lamented when the Mayor’s zip line disaster during the Olympics became a social media phenomenon. While Cameron’s discomfort over his old school tie and Bullingdon club waistcoat only eggs his critics on, Boris suffers from no such stigma. Indeed, in the context of these rehashed allegations, the public would probably be more surprised if Boris had not gone to Eton with a chap called Darius Guppy who subsequently did time for insurance fraud. Our popular perception is that schools like Eton are full of potential fraudsters called Darius, right? Indeed, the number of Etonians that pass through our nation’s open prisons only marginally exceeds the number who makes it into Downing Street.
Certainly the Mayor revealed a certain naivety on Sunday in assuming that these allegations would not once again be raised. (Surely he can’t have genuinely believed that he was invited to do a set piece interview on his housing policies)? Undoubtedly he needs to develop some better responses to these charges for future use. However, he need not worry that his performance will have holed his leadership ambitions below the water line.
Boris’ political prospects do not rest on his reputation as a journalist or whether or not he is the most faithful of husbands but on his perceived ability to win elections. The fact he has been able to weather these same accusations time and again only cements Boris’ reputation as a political untouchable, and thus strengthens his case for the top job in British politics.
James Ford was an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson (2010-12) and is an expert on London politics. He currently works as an adviser to both PLMR and the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry.