Boris Johnson is under attack across the entire political spectrum for running a vacuous campaign light on facts and bereft of specific proposals on policy.
One can seldom hear so much accurate and justified criticism missing the mark by such a wide margin. For a political campaign has one purpose only: to win.
A good campaign is one that achieves this purpose; a bad campaign is one that doesn’t. That’s the strategy, deciding what needs doing. The rest is tactics – deciding how to do it.
And the tactics of a campaign always depend on the candidate’s pole position. Just imagine a 100m race, where one of the similarly able runners starts from, say, a 30m mark.
The race is in the bag, the only way he can lose is by overextending himself and pulling a muscle. Hence he runs a conservative race, trying not to do anything silly.
The other runners, however, have to strain every sinew trying to catch up. They have to go hell for leather and take risks – if they injure themselves, then so be it, the race is lost anyway.
This analogy works in any competitive situation. Just look at marketing.
The brand leader usually adopts a neutral stance, not stooping to attacks on competition. Its advertising is typically generic, implicitly claiming the benefits of the whole product category for itself.
On the other hand, brands lagging behind behave in an entirely different manner. They attack the leader, hoping to usurp some of its market share. Hence many saloons compare themselves to the BMW 3 Series, but one never sees the BMW 3 Series comparing itself to other cars.
The same logic is naturally transposed into political campaigns, including this one. Johnson clearly feels, and I’m sure his private polling confirms, that the race is his to lose – and he doesn’t want to lose it.
That’s why he plays it safe, refusing to commit himself to anything controversial and trying to avoid outlandish utterances that he has been known to make.
So far I’ve heard only two specific promises: that he’ll leave the EU by the designated date with or without a deal, and that he’ll limit immigration by introducing an Australian-style point system.
In both instances he refuses to be bogged down in detail. How will he be able to keep his promise on a no-deal exit if that’s the only option? Wait and see. Wouldn’t it involve heavy tariffs on British exports? Not necessarily. Why not? Wait and see.
The only alternative to such equivocation would be to say that a) it’s clear that no deal will be acceptable to both our political establishment and the EU; b) leaving without a deal is the only way; c) leaving is a moral imperative because of the referendum, and a constitutional one because Parliament invoked Article 50; d) the purpose of Brexit isn’t to gain more money but to regain our sovereignty.
Yet such a display of moral and intellectual integrity could be equal to a sprinter snapping his hamstring within reach of the finish line. If Johnson were coming from behind, he’d probably be making such statements. As it is, he doesn’t have to.
All he’s really saying is that his government will definitely get Britain out of the EU, which the latest poll shows 57 per cent of the electorate want to hear. Similarly, he’s promising to reduce immigration because most people want to hear that too. A reference to the point system is just adding a touch of verisimilitude to an otherwise general sentiment.
As to Johnson’s private affairs, they are the talk of the town. His colourful sex life, say his detractors, may lay him open to blackmail.
That’s arrant nonsense. No one can be blackmailed by threats to reveal common knowledge. I don’t think many people would be shocked by yet another revelation that Johnson doesn’t really resemble a monk living on Mount Athos, where nothing female is allowed to enter, including hens and ewes.
Johnson has built up a huge lead against the background of such common knowledge. That’s why he’s refraining from any comments on his recent tiff with his girlfriend.
Nothing he can say will strengthen his position; just about anything he can say will weaken it. So he does the front-runner thing and says nothing.
Jeremy Hunt, if he’s serious about winning, can’t afford such soft pedalling. He must attack Johnson on every front, including his personal life. He must also offer policy specifics by the dozen – which is why he has already promised to increase the defence budget by 25 per cent over five years.
Alas, Hunt closely resembles the male version of Mrs May, but without the dazzle. He may also be held back by the realisation that the race is already dead, while his chances for a high post in the Johnson cabinet are very much alive.
One way or another, he has spurned every opportunity to push Johnson out of the way and win the race. For example, in his interview on Sky TV Hunt refused to comment on Johnson’s picturesque private life. Let’s talk about policies, he said, but then failed to do just that.
None of this should be taken as affection for Boris Johnson. I’m far from sure he can make a good, or even long-serving, PM. However, some things widely perceived as his weaknesses may well be his strengths.
Much criticism centres around Johnson’s being a lazy, delegating, broad-stroke kind of a man who often neglects the nitty-gritty of quotidian politics. But exactly the same criticism was levelled at Ronald Reagan, whom now many regard as a great president.
Much depends on the advisors the PM selects, and I think Johnson is capable of surrounding himself with the kind of men who formed Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle. They’ll be able to sweat out the details, with Johnson’s hand light on the tiller and his speeches heavy on inspiring rhetoric.
No doubt Johnson has much to criticise him for, and he’s indeed an egotistic power-seeker, whose nimble mind tends to skim the surface, and whose elastic morality can get him into many a bind.
And yes, his campaign does look chaotically mad. But there’s method to it, no doubt about that. He and his advisors might have miscalculated, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t calculated.