Can the public still relate to Boris Johnson?

By Siân Jones

Politics watchers may remember an interview Boris Johnson gave during the 2019 General Election campaign; in the course of which the premier was asked why he was ‘relatable’ to voters.

‘Er, am I relatable? I’ve not the faintest idea’ answered the Prime Minister, shifting awkwardly in his seat. 

If Mr Johnson’s eventual 80-seat majority is anything to go by, voters did find something in the Prime Minister that they could relate to – whether it was being in tune with their views on Brexit, his optimism about Britain’s future, or his willingness to chat with them about everyday things. Regardless of his privileged background, he spoke their language and at least appeared to be in tune with their needs.

Yet now, arguably for the first time, that relatability is starting to be brought into question. The embarrassing retreat over Parliamentary standards – another u-turn amongst many – started out as a niche Westminster village story but has since exploded into the public consciousness, with the flames fanned further by the Prime Minister’s refusal to apologise for any wrongdoing. His abrupt termination of yesterday’s press conference in Glasgow provided further fuel to those accusing him of evading awkward questions that didn’t play up to his optimistic, boosterish persona. This was in sharp contrast with his Chancellor (and successor-in-waiting), Rishi Sunak’s frank admission on Sky News that ‘as a government, it’s fair to say that we need to do better than we did last week, and we know that’.

COP too, has proved to be another test of Boris Johnson’s relatability.  Of course, it has been a huge opportunity to boost the premier’s profile on the international stage. But it’s questionable whether it will resonate in the same way with the voters at home. There is a sizeable proportion of the electorate who, while agreeing with the overall principles at stake, will nonetheless be worrying about the real-life cost of delivering his expensive-sounding green agenda – whether it’s putting in a new boiler, getting rid of a cherished coal fire, or finding the money for that electric car.

We often hear that Boris Johnson gets away with things other politicians wouldn’t, because his unconventional behaviour is already ‘priced in’ to his political stock. One wonders whether, in the angry criticism voiced by Sir John Major last weekend (Sir John was, after all, brought down by sleaze), there wasn’t also a touch of envy. But when accusations start to be made of Britain being ‘politically corrupt’, there comes a point when voters will sit up and start to take notice. Sleaze resonates. Chaos resonates.

And the polls too are starting to turn against the Government. Not by much – Keir Starmer’s largely ineffective Labour opposition has made sure of that – but enough to cause real concern in a government that has so far, enjoyed a very easy ride with the public. It’s no small wonder that the Prime Minister’s former lieutenant, Ben Gascoigne, is returning to be Deputy Chief of Staff in Number 10; an organisation that sorely needs more high-level political operators. Meanwhile, other political challenges loom on the horizon, not least the ongoing row over trade with Northern Ireland.

As my colleague Chris White argued earlier this week, maintaining the support of backbenchers smarting from the fallout of the Owen Paterson debacle is likely to be the Prime Minister’s biggest test. Until now, they have been largely loyal, mindful that they owe their seats to his success. But now the murmurings have begun. Tony Blair, let’s remember, never lost a general election. He was forced out in a coup when his MPs -and Gordon Brown in particular – had had enough of him. And the Conservative Party is even more ruthless when it comes to defenestrating leaders it deems to have outlived their political usefulness.

So, while the Prime Minister has an urgent job to be done in improving his operation behind the scenes, there’s a job to be done in building bridges with his party and his voters, too. He could do a lot worse than starting with that overdue apology. 

It’s not a full-blown existential crisis for Boris Johnson’s premiership just yet. He still has that majority, and the next election is some time off. But in a few years’ time – just how far in the future is hard to tell – we may well look back on the last fortnight and wonder whether this was the first indication of how his premiership might draw to a close.