To say access to Boris Johnson is heavily controlled for this election would be to understate it. There are areas beneath the floorboards behind the fridge in Antarctic ice stations that are more accessible than the prime minister, who now makes Theresa May look like someone who couldn’t wait to get out there amongst it all.
Even a walk to Whitehall’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room A has appeared a bridge too far for the past few days. With both Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, and Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, making visits to the flood-affected Doncaster area on Tuesday, it is a mystery why Johnson left it quite so long to chair a Cobra meeting on the situation. The mystery is not so much the failure to empathise – that might be expected given his crisis formbook, of which more later – but the failure to realise he must LOOK as though he empathises. Without wishing to distract the prime minister from whatever it is he is up to in seclusion, you’d think one or other of his advisers might have noticed that a general election was indeed occurring, and that appearing to give at least a quasi-toss about a section of voters might be a helpful position for him to adopt.
“I think it’s absolutely shocking, the Cobra thing they’ve put in force yesterday,” one volunteer at the donation centre Swinson visited told ITV news on Tuesday morning. “I mean, that should’ve been put in force at the start.”
“I’m very angry about it,” another volunteer agreed. “They should be starting to spend some money round here,” she told the cameras. The donation centre, incidentally, is a public library that fell victim to austerity cuts, and is now staffed entirely by volunteers even when it’s not a crisis relief centre.
Thus the question for the 4D chess grandmasters of No 10 isn’t “why have a Cobra meeting?”, but “why NOT have one?” Even these geniuses appeared to have worked this out by Monday night, though unfortunately not before Jeremy Corbyn had sent them a letter telling them the answer. Have a Cobra meeting, guys! Literally just have a Cobra meeting. Late on Monday, Downing Street announced that Johnson would indeed chair a crisis committee meeting on flood response this afternoon.
With that in the diary, though, the airwaves were left to his opponents for most of the day. Perhaps Johnson thought he’d already done his bit, after footage had emerged of him attempting to mop the floor of a Specsavers in Derbyshire last Friday. The widespread verdict was that Johnson appeared to be actually making it worse – possibly understandable given his previous attempts to actually increase the volume of water in public life, via the purchase of three water cannon as London mayor.
Indeed, it was this latter period of public office which established that glacial responses to situations requiring leadership are something of a speciality for Johnson. When the London riots broke out in 2011, the mayor was holidaying in a Winnebago in the Canadian Rockies, and deeply resisted backstage efforts to bring him back to work as public fury mounted.
The official contortions to cover him became ever more ingenious. Some days in, his deputy mayor for policing, Kit Malthouse – who would go on to star in miscast vanity vehicle The Malthouse Compromise – explained it would be “rewarding” the rioters for Boris to return. “He is not going to come back and allow these criminals to set the agenda.” David Cameron’s increasingly irate Downing Street briefed that it was “incredible” that Johnson hadn’t returned. Alas, when the imperative to do so could no longer be ignored, Johnson contrived to perform even worse. A televised visit to Clapham saw his usual shtick fail to wash with Londoners whose businesses had been vandalised, with the lack of empathy widely criticised. The visit almost ended with locals chanting “three days too late!” at his departing back.
Almost, but not quite. Towards the end of the walkabout, Johnson grabbed a broom off a bystander and waved it about, and thus ended up starring in a welter of press coverage suggesting he was mucking in with the clean-up. So perhaps he will expunge his current unforced error with a leadership-effect turn for the news bulletins. And perhaps he’ll get his hands dirty in the election campaign, if not the flood region, in the days ahead. But at present the general impression given is of a highly-strung animal who can only be produced on extremely select occasions, and for lightning bursts. A bit like the show dog in The Big Lebowski which has to be handled with great care, otherwise “it gets upset and its hair falls out”. Is it all a brilliant strategy on the Tories’ part – or are they just afraid the prime minister will hump someone’s leg?