Which Boris Johnson should Labour fight? There is little doubt about the personality traits most left-wing activists think they have detected in the Prime Minister and which motivate them to campaign tirelessly for his removal from office.
The Johnson they are fighting is a cruel and dastardly right-wing serial liar who wins elections by pulling the wool over the eyes of the voters. A British Trump, in other words.
One social media activist is very proud that his video of the PM ‘lying’ to the Commons and elsewhere has 32 million views. But one wonders how many of those views came from people who were not already convinced Boris-haters?
In fact, many of the ‘lies’ documented in the video concern mere exaggerations or disputed interpretations. For example, the PM is shown referring at one point to bringing back the nurses’ bursary when it was a less generous maintenance grant that was re-introduced.
Then there is Boris the heartless who wants to cut Income Support by £20 a week and who resisted the sainted Marcus Rashford on free meals for poor kids.
Earlier this summer Tulip Siddiq, shadow minister for children, was banging that drum again, claiming: ‘Feeding hungry children cannot be a part-time activity, yet this Conservative government is again stripping away the support that millions of families rely on.’ In fact, more free meals have been provided across England this summer than ever before.
Remember too how eagerly people leapt on reports that while resisting imposing a second lockdown Boris Johnson had declared he was ready to ‘let the bodies pile high’. To the average voter it was obvious that such a phrase, if it was ever said, would have been uttered in the context of an understandable reluctance to lock the country down again and a desire to push his advisers to justify their case. But to the left it was another example of Boris the psychopathic Bogeyman – Britain’s most heartless right-wing prime minister since the last person they accused of being Britain’s most heartless right-wing prime minister.
There are (at least) two problems with this approach. The first is that it isn’t true and will not convince many people who are not already avowedly anti-Tory. This is in fact a PM who has never been a supporter of public sector austerity and who authorised extraordinary levels of spending explicitly to enable the state to ‘put its arms around the people’ during the Covid pandemic. The £20 Income Support uplift was one small part of that and was always intended to be time limited.
The second problem is that the bogeyman depiction imbues the PM with potency, making him more attractive rather than less to the many people who dislike the left-wing and quite fancy the idea of a ruthless ‘strongman’ leader.
Indeed, what actually worries many of those who voted Conservative in 2019 is a growing suspicion that Boris Johnson is nowhere near strong enough. Were his political opponents more focused on taking floating voters away from the Tories and rather less focused on parading their own sense of moral superiority, the Boris Johnson in their sights would be a befuddled, ineffectual and exhausted character – a rheumy-eyed, sagging sofa of a PM forever bearing the imprint of the last person to sit on him.
Until he was booted out at Christmas that person was generally Dominic Cummings. Now it is more often suspected to be Mrs Johnson. The PM personally intervening this week to prioritise cats and dogs in the UK evacuation of Afghanistan did rather suggest that ‘what Carrie wants Carrie gets’ is the new presiding doctrine in No. 10.
And for how many more months will the left be willing to let the PM get away with over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to combating illegal migrant landings on the south coast? Time and again he and his senior ministers have promised to bring that farce to an end. Time and again they have failed to deliver. But how many times has Keir Starmer made it a priority at Prime Minister’s Questions? Not once, so scared is he to risk the impression of caring about border control.
The central thrust of Tony Blair’s destruction of the political personality of John Major – the most complete dismantling of a prime minister by a leader of the opposition in modern times – was not a contention that Major was nasty, but that he was useless; a figure who merited mockery and even pity.
That is the trick that Starmer and the left in general needs to pull off when it comes to Boris Johnson. It will not set their pulses racing anywhere near as much as the idea of fighting Johnson the braying Bullingdon bully boy. But they might just find some non-aligned voters ready to believe it.