There is a reason Boris Johnson is avoiding the TV debates, and his name is Lynton Crosby.
Crosby is running the Johnson leadership campaign — in awkward conjunction, it seems, with Boris’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds. He is a veritable TV debatephobe. He has run the last two Tory general elections, and he ordered David Cameron and Theresa May to shy away from the TV debates.
In Crosby’s view, debate-ducking is the sensible course. He sees no upside. For frontrunners, especially, if the debate goes well, there is no real uptick in support. The only way a TV debate can influence an election is if a candidate has a massive gaffe, a viral FAIL that destroys his or her credibility. So best shunned.
That makes perfect sense in terms of winning — perhaps doubly so in Boris’s case, with so much of the anti-Brexit media bubble desperate for him to slip up. It’s why Boris’s team are apparently so wedded to this ‘submarine’ strategy.
But it is cowardly. It is wet, to use a word Tories are familiar with. Nobody wants to be led by a coward. The short-term benefits of removing the banana-skin should be set against the longer term negatives of making your candidate look like a slippery fish. Even when you win, you look sly.
Moreover, as a tactic, debate ducking undervalues Boris’s talents. He is at his best in an improvisational situation. People can call him Britain’s Trump as much as they like, and convince themselves that he will say something ‘unacceptable’. The same sort of people did that to Trump and look where it got them. In 2015 and 2016, Trump repeatedly said the most shocking things on the debate stage, and his popularity soared. Britain isn’t America, but Boris is a more lively orator than Trump, and he would excel in any debate. He was brilliant in attacking Ken Livingstone in the mayoral contest in 2012, and did well against Nicola Sturgeon and others in the Brexit TV debates. Since Oxford, he has excelled at public speaking and performing in rhetorical combat. He’s a TV star.
Lynton and Boris are a good team, as we are seeing in Johnson’s (so far) highly impressive and disciplined campaign. Crosby brings order to Johnson’s chaos; Johnson brings charm to Crosby’s often lifeless campaigns. After Crosby guided him to election success, Boris swears by him: he told David Cameron and George Osborne they must use his services in 2015. It worked for them, I suppose, though Crosby and May were a terrible combination in 2017 — and it showed in her turgid and fractious campaign. She looked ever more reclusive and untrustworthy for shunning the TV debates with Jeremy Corbyn.
Crosby’s debatephobia is bad politics. Why not let Boris be Boris?