Is Boris Johnson a robot? I ask this advisedly, given the connotations of that word in the political arena, but the way the Prime Minister responded to questions from a journalist this afternoon does suggest he might be turning into one.
He was asked by ITV’s Joe Pike for a response to the photo of a young boy with suspected pneumonia lying on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary, waiting for a bed. It’s a difficult photo for anyone to look at without an emotional response, and Johnson initially refused to see it at all, taking the reporter’s phone out of his hand, and shoving it in his own pocket. Instead of looking, he said: ‘What we are doing is we are taking this country forward and we are investing in the NHS and what would be the worst thing possible would be to have a government that is mired in more deadlock, more disarray, and unable to move forward, so I have every sympathy with families who are suffering.’
Tried to show @BorisJohnson the picture of Jack Williment-Barr. The 4-year-old with suspected pneumonia forced to lie on a pile of coats on the floor of a Leeds hospital.
— Joe Pike (@joepike) December 9, 2019
He also insisted that he would comment later because he was in the middle of doing the interview. Then he took the phone out of his pocket and looked at the picture, describing it as a ‘terrible, terrible photo’.
What was the Prime Minister up to? Why wasn’t he just able to have a human response which is that regardless of all the wider context to the picture, it is not right that a child who is potentially very unwell should have to lie on a hospital floor? The answer is that the way the Tories have dealt with this election campaign so far is to refuse to engage with Labour’s campaign motifs, including the NHS. The rationale of the running the campaign is that if you start arguing back about a policy or a criticism put by the Opposition, then you end up on their turf, and that’s where you get bogged down. Much better to have an unrelenting focus on your own campaign message, which is about the ned to get Brexit done and avoid more ‘dither and delay’.
This is all very well when the subject is the NHS more widely, or something like free broadband. But it just doesn’t work when there’s an individual story, particularly one involving a sick child. Sticking to your campaign slogans in a TV debate is one thing. Being so rigid about repeating your points when faced with one human story that you start to sound like a Dalek is quite another. He may have beaten Jeremy Hunt squarely in the leadership contest, but it is hard to imagine the former Health Secretary responding in the same way to such a story, even one where his own government was potentially at fault.
This means Johnson has taken the debate onto Labour’s turf anyway, by being so strikingly robotic about this story that everyone is talking about it. We are in the closing arguments stage of the campaign now, and Johnson is going to have to work that bit harder to try to get back to talking about what he wants.