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Labour’s Boris Johnson Problem

Tom Hamilton

In two London mayoral campaigns against him, Labour failed to develop and stick to a clear message about Boris Johnson, and lost twice.

Labour has never known how best to respond to Boris Johnson. Is he a hard-right ideologue, or a frivolous dilettante with no principles? Should the public fear him because his plan is dangerous, or because he is too incompetent to get anything done? Is he a racist, sexist, homophobic boor, or just a gifted comic writer who will say anything to get a laugh? Is he a chancer who got lucky, or does his public image mask a coldly calculating, ruthless ambition?

You can make a plausible, evidenced political case for any of these propositions, but not for all of them at once. In two London mayoral campaigns against him, Labour failed to develop and stick to a clear message about Boris Johnson, and lost twice.

The Boris persona doesn’t help. When your opponent cultivates an air of clownishness, pointing out his lack of seriousness simply plays into the image he has created for himself – and makes you look humourless at the same time. When, like Jeremy Corbyn, you really are humourless (at least in public) the effect is magnified.

Already, less than 24 hours in, Labour’s response to Johnson looks confused. Their anti-Johnson attack website characterises him in three ways: “Out of touch elite”, “Untrustworthy” and “Dangerously incompetent”. Two press releases so far have attacked the new Cabinet for having former bankers in it (highlighting Johnson’s biggest unforced error in the leadership campaign, his indignant assertion that after the financial crisis nobody “stuck up for the bankers as much as I did”). Jeremy Corbyn’s response to Johnson’s first Downing Street speech accused him of “empty bluster”. His response to Johnson’s first Commons statement highlighted Johnson’s closeness to the US President who has called him “Britain Trump”. It is too early to see a strategy in this.

Of course, the Boris appeal has never been universal, and there is a big political market for alternatives. Polls show he is widely unpopular and eminently beatable. But Johnson’s biggest weakness, and biggest source of unpopularity among those sections of the public who dislike him, is his leading role in the Leave campaign and his passionate commitment to Brexit.

It is a weakness that Labour is currently almost precision-engineered to be incapable of exploiting. While Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats can put Brexit at the front and centre of their message on Johnson, Labour’s Brexit position is too nuanced to generate a strong attack line. Labour can warn of the risk of no deal, but it cannot offer a principled criticism of Johnson’s commitment to leave the EU, and so it doesn’t.

It is yet more evidence of the political imperative shared by both main parties. Boris Johnson desperately needs to get Brexit done. And Labour desperately needs him to get it done too. When he does, they may finally be able to work out how to attack him.

Tom Hamilton is an Associate Director in MHP’s Public Affairs team. Prior to joining MHP, he was a Labour Adviser for 10 years – most recently as Head of Policy to Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.