The UK is finally reaching the end of a weird few weeks. On Thursday, Brits will go to the polls to vote in what might be the most important election in a generation.
Most people expected this election to be a high-energy, nasty and personal contest. Brexit has left the UK bitterly divided, as the political class has failed to reach anything resembling a consensus. Instead, it’s opted to spend the past three years engaged in a screaming match over the preferred outcome to the most important issue facing the country.
However, the campaign itself has been eerily quiet. Boris Johnson has been accused of dodging media interviews, most notably with the BBC’s veteran presenter Andrew Neil, and avoiding press scrutiny. Which is important, when you consider that Johnson has serious questions to answer on his own Brexit policy, Islamophobia in his Conservative Party, and the fact that his campaign stands accused of publishing deliberately misleading information more than once on its own social media platforms.
The opposition Labour Party is also far from innocent. Its manifesto is full of promises to spend huge amounts on public services and radical giveaways, such as nationalizing the internet and providing free broadband. It’s also promised to hold a second referendum on Brexit, should Labour win a majority.
Both men have popularity issues. Johnson also struggles with the public, particularly on the question of trust. However, if recent polling is to be believed, he is less unpopular than Corbyn, meaning that if he can reach polling day without having taken many big punches, he should still comfortably win on December 12.
This might explain why Johnson’s election campaign has been so low-key, and why he’s the only party leader to have dodged the Neil interview.
Bruises to punch
The accusation is that Johnson is deliberately avoiding Neil because he knows how badly it might go for him. Neil eviscerated Corbyn in his interview, asking him very difficult questions about his own Brexit position, his ambitious manifesto and the anti-Semitism scandal that has engulfed his leadership since 2015.
Only this week, a group called the Jewish Labour Movement submitted a dossier to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is investigating allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Neil’s strategic demolition of Corbyn led the news agenda for days.
Johnson has also been accused of making racist statements. Last year, he wrote a newspaper column in which he said that women who wear Islamic face veils looked like “letterboxes.” He’d previously described citizens of Commonwealth countries as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and members of his own party have accused it of having a huge problem with Islamophobia.
That, coupled with the fact his party has deliberately misled the public, and that his own Brexit policy is more complicated than he’s willing to let the public know, would give Neil several bruises to punch.
A senior Conservative source defended the decision, telling CNN that the “public are fed up with interviews that are all about the interviewer and endless interruptions. The format is broken and needs to change if it is to start engaging and informing the public again.”
But this is bigger than one interview. Johnson has been criticized for taking relatively few questions from journalists and not appearing in as many televised debates as his rivals. His Conservative campaign team say this criticism is unfair, given he has given more than 100 interviews to local and national media, has appeared in two debates with Corbyn and has done two lengthy phone-ins with the public.
The perception that Johnson is avoiding scrutiny remains, although it doesn’t seem to be damaging him. The Financial Times’ poll tracker shows that since the election was called, Johnson’s poll lead of roughly 10% has remained consistent.
“This campaign has been characterized by risk aversion on the Conservative side. It’s all about avoiding gaffes and the mistakes of 2017 and hoovering Brexit Party voters,” says Will Jennings, professor of politics at Southampton University. Jennings points out that Johnson did exactly this when running as Mayor of London, saying he “kept his head down and let the others make mistakes.”
Salma Shah, a former Conservative special adviser, believes this is a sensible strategy for Johnson. “The reality is that when you go into an election in the lead, you are in a much riskier position. You don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that.”
Poor personal ratings
It’s all a little strange for a public who has been used to Johnson being the loudest voice in the Brexit debate from day one and not exactly camera shy. Indeed, many claim Brexit would never have happened were it not for Johnson being the campaign’s popular frontman.
While this might be true, it exposes Johnson’s greatest weakness. “The strange thing about Boris is the myth that he connects with members of the public. The truth is a little different. He goes down very well with Conservatives, but normal voters are a little nonplussed,” says Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.
This is where the true picture of this election comes into focus. “There is an image of Johnson being a popular politician, but his ratings are actually pretty poor,” says Jennings. “It’s only by virtue of being up against leaders with even worse ratings that he’s not a drag on the party.”
Ordinary Labour candidates are not oblivious to this. One prominent lawmaker seeking re-election told CNN that “if we had any other leader than Corbyn, the Labour Party would have this election in the bag. Corbyn is a hindrance across the country.”
So, an election that hopes to answer the biggest challenges facing the UK has ultimately come down to a popularity contest between two unpopular men, both of whom face the daunting task of having to get their heads around the Brexit mess and drive through some of the most important legislation ever to hit Parliament.
No wonder both men think hiding is the best way to keep their voter base firm.
Shah explains that in an election where the Conservatives need to win specific seats, “spending time on the ground is a better idea for Boris” than endless TV interviews. “When people talk about Boris being a great campaigner it’s not that he gives great lucid interviews or speeches, it’s that he is very good when he’s out there meeting people on the stump.”
Bale’s less flattering assessment is that with Johnson ahead in the polls “it’s the Conservatives’ election to lose. That’s exactly why they’ve minimized the opportunities for him to make a mistake.”
Come Friday morning, we will know if this strategy has worked or not and Boris Johnson will finally be able to “Get Brexit Done.”
However, if he has a majority on December 13, whatever happens next with Brexit is going to be on his shoulders. And there will be nowhere for Johnson to hide. Corbyn will probably go, Labour will have a new leader and Johnson’s opponents, no longer having to worry about appealing to voters, will be more than happy to get stuck into him.
This story has been updated to correct when Boris Johnson wrote that women who wear Islamic face veils looked like “letterboxes.”