Is Boris Johnson woke? That's a question the Prime Minister's spokesperson struggled to answer today in a lobby briefing. Instead of a 'yes' or 'no', they responded by saying Johnson was committed to levelling up all communities. The reason for the question in the first place relates to an interview shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy gave to the Guardian in which she asserted that new US president Joe Biden was 'woke' (that may come as news to him, given he was confused what the term meant during his presidential campaign).
This, in turn, led to the Prime Minister being asked whether he agreed that Biden was woke – to which Johnson looked lost for words. Eventually he embarked on a lengthy answer in which he said:
'There's nothing wrong with being woke'
That line was, in part, Johnson attempting to avoid a diplomatic gaffe hours into president Biden's first term. Right now, Downing Street is hoping to love-bomb the new president – emphasising at any given opportunity common ground on the environment, foreign affairs and liberal values. 'Woke', however, is a much harder proposition, as not only is it hard to define, it's a political mine field for Johnson.
Culture wars are an issue of debate in the Tory party. The notion that there is nothing wrong with being woke will have come as a surprise to many in Johnson's party. In recent months, MPs have been piling pressure on Downing Street to step up and engage in a war on woke. The thinking goes that an unapologetic stance on issues ranging from alleged BBC bias and Extinction Rebellion to trans rights and Black Lives Matter could unite the base and remind voters that this is a Conservative government.
Liz Truss even went on the offensive on the issue in December. Announcing a shake-up for how the government approaches the issue of gender and equalities, she hit out at at those 'behind this pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures. To these zombies, truth and morality are merely relative'. No. 10 policy chief Munira Mirza has been instrumental behind the scenes in driving this agenda.
So far the Prime Minister has been cautious on the issue – preferring to tread a middle ground, stepping out only when he believes the left have over reached. However, the departure of Vote Leave aides and the arrival of a new Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield and a new press person in Allegra Stratton has led to a change in tone.
Rather than picking fights, the messages coming from the comms office have been much softer. A recent lobby briefing the Prime Minister’s spokesperson gave involved them saying that political debate should mean that people are 'civil and kind' to each other. Is Boris Johnson woke? No – but his political approach to the issue could be changing.