Boris. How does he do it? After all of the controversies from the unlawful proroguing of parliament, signing the ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal with the EU, then looking to rewrite parts of it he doesn’t like, getting someone else to pay for redecorating the Downing Street flat, and whipping his own MPs over the Owen Paterson scandal, to the one that’s had us all hooked for months and the most threatening to his career: Partygate and the question of whether he did or didn’t knowingly mislead parliament.
Despite all of these controversies, he still, somehow, survives.
One of the most notable lines of defence from his apologists goes along the lines of “people knew they weren’t voting in a saint” [referring to Johnson leading his party to victory in the 2019 election]. And, indeed, there seems to be a lot of truth in that.
While many of the public are understandably angry at Boris (especially those who were denied the opportunity to spend time with dying loved ones or made to sit apart at funerals), the news channels don’t seem to have much of a problem finding members of the public, who are prepared to forgive Boris’ ‘misdemeanours’, because (and you can take your pick out of these) ‘he’s got the big calls right’, ‘he’s a staunch ally of Ukraine’, ‘we need him to focus on the cost of living crisis/the NHS/adult social care’.
How much the general public really are on his side, only time will tell (if he makes it to the next election).
But, what Boris and his team have done quite well, in terms of dealing with bad news, comes straight out of the PR playbook.
Consistent, simple messaging
Number 10 has been consistent in its messaging once they settled on a line of defence after Boris’ initial, outright denials of no parties in Downing Street; all the rules were followed etc etc.
Their messaging revolves around three main points:
- Boris’ transgression(s) (even if there were any) were minimal - just a few minutes being ambushed by cake on his birthday.
- He’s apologised for any other transgressions in Number 10, learned the lessons and made changes.
- He’s got the big calls right during the pandemic - the implication being that he’s worth keeping on, because of his ability to make good judgements (hmmm).
The messaging has since been tweaked with the addition of ‘now is not the right time to change leaders’: “There’s a war in Ukraine don’t you know. We’ve got to tackle to cost of living crisis/NHS crisis/level up…”
Many of the cabinet have been rolled out for the news channels to chant the mantra and they have delivered it very consistently – a bit clunky at times, but consistent.
He’s got (apparent) loyalty from his cabinet and ministers: Shapps, Gove, Raab, Zahawi, Lewis, Dorries, Rees-Mogg, Dowden, Kwarteng, Barclay, Truss et al. They’re on message, at least publicly.
And the messaging is simple, it can easily be adopted and repeated by ordinary MPs and others wanting to defend the PM. It’s usually delivered in beat of three:
‘Minor transgression, apologised, big calls right’.
‘Believed it was a work event, taken responsibility, made changes.’
‘Cleared by Sue Grey, great ally to Ukraine, working on things the public really care about.’
Delay, delay, delay
This is where the dark arts really come into play. In government, it’s virtually a tradition. Kick it into the long grass or at least as far down the road as you can.
If you can keep something off the news agenda for long enough people will either forget about it or other things assume greater importance.
The harsh truth is people simply get bored if something drags on – certainly, the general public do.
Partygate is a classic: first it was waiting for the Sue Grey report, which was then delayed for the Met Police to decide that they did want to investigate after they originally said they didn’t. Sue Grey was put on hold for a number of weeks, then she published her report (after an apparent meeting with Boris to discuss something) with a few images of people with blurry faces and said she didn’t feel it was appropriate or proportionate to investigate the alleged ‘Abba party’ in the Number 10 flat. All-in-all, it was a bit of a damp squib (who’d have guessed?)
However, Partygate hasn’t quite gone away yet, because there are quite a few (a lot of) miffed MPs who have banded together to get another committee to look into the question of whether or not Boris misled parliament.
If he clears that hurdle, Partygate will be history (barring a bombshell photo or video of Boris dancing to Winner Takes It All).
Boris has a likeability and charisma
Like it or not, Boris has both charisma and likeability (for people who don’t know him at any rate; some people who do have begged to differ).
And he’s a brilliant performer.
First of all, Boris makes it all sound so easy. You want £350 million a week extra for the NHS? Easy, just get Brexit done. I’ve got an oven ready deal for Brexit - Northern Ireland protocol? A mere detail. High skill, high wage economy – piece of cake. We believe in low taxes [at the same time as the country is facing the highest tax burden for 70 years].
When he’s confronted about these things not being delivered or inconsistencies between what he says and the actual reality, he simply shakes his head and denies it. He’s a bit like the pet shop owner in Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch.
So, how does he keep getting away with it? Because he appeals to people, especially ordinary members of the public, working class people as well. He shouldn’t – a privileged, old Etonian with a lifestyle to match.
Some people are desperate to believe Boris, because they like him. ‘He’s like a regular bloke down the pub’.
You can’t buy that appeal. But there is a lesson in it for any organisation in a crisis that has to face the press. Put forward someone as your spokesperson who is likeable, someone who exudes empathy, someone who the public will believe (or even trust).
Boris is unique. He’s the ultimate smooth talker. He presents as a loveable rogue just trying to do his best and bumbling through (like the rest of us).
That’s how Boris does it (as well as generating a fog of chaos and confusion that further hampers any attempt to pin him down on specific issues or policies – who else would reference Peppa Pig as an example of how to create a high skill, high wage economy?)
Can he keep doing it? That has long been the question.
The answer is no. No prime minister carries on forever. And it normally ends badly – Maggie (kicked out by her own MPs), John Major (thrashed in the election), Blair (Iraq war), Gordon Brown (some bigoted woman), Cameron (Brexit), Theresa May (Brexit).
But Boris is different. He’s different alright.
But, even Boris, The Great Houdini, after all that’s happened, is lucky to have got this far. With a couple of by-elections round the corner, 40% of his MPs who likely still want him gone and the potential of a 'guilty' verdict being returned by the Privileges Committee, some commentators are predicting he'll be gone by the autumn.
Having said that, he’s odds on with the bookies to make it at least until the end of the year.
Edit update: 7 July 22
It's said a week is a long time in politics. Three weeks is an eternity.
Boris has finally done himself - it was bound to happen. It's who he is - his 'brand' if you like.
There's one more PR lesson we can all learn from this. No matter how much you spin things or try and change the narrative, eventually the truth will out.