Boris Johnson is hiring a £100,000-a-year shield for his own incompetence

The prime minister should be explaining his decisions, his thinking, his plans in his own words – not a spokesperson

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 29 July 2020 14:59
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Boris Johnson warns of second wave of coronavirus from Europe

So, No 10 is looking for “an experienced and confident media operator” to front daily televised press briefings. Isn’t one of Boris Johnson’s few qualifications for his present job that he is “an experienced and confident media operator”?

Apparently the daily coronavirus press briefings were so successful that the government wants to emulate their reach, even though Downing Street scrapped them and the prime minister wasn’t involved in most of them anyway. It is a mad idea and the media should boycott the press conferences. They will be an utter waste of time.

Could it be that the tiresome business of facing the media is yet another chore that Johnson finds irksome and he’d really rather that someone else got with that while he finds some other way to idle the days away? Just like he lets Dominic Cummings do all the policy stuff, Rishi Sunak does the accounts, and Michael Gove is lumbered with the incredibly dull Brexit talks?

I may be imagining this, but it does feel like Johnson is transforming his role from the traditional prime ministerial one into something like being mayor of London – mayor of Britain. Like when he did his inaugural tub-thumping content-free speech outside No 10 a year ago, he’s there to do the boosterism, to tell the country to get its mojo back and unleash its potential.

He is Britain’s first after-dinner speaker to become prime minister. Never a details man, he is now moving away from the business of communicating what his government is supposed to be about. Someone else can do that for £100,000 a year. If they get it wrong they can be “corrected”; if they’ve forgotten how household bubbles work for grandparents, well that’s their lookout. Isn’t life grand?

It’s not an encouraging or healthy development for our democracy. Johnson is notorious for avoiding tricky media encounters – such as with Andrew Neil during the election campaign – and the new spokesperson represents another barrier put up between him and the governed.

Apart from the odd news clip or soft clowning job with a friendly paper, Johnson just does not do set-piece interviews. Even less than his predecessors he won’t face a combative interviewer. Margaret Thatcher used to enjoy pitting her wits against the likes of Brian Walden; other premiers did them out of a sense of duty. Most were good at them. Johnson is more of a coward.

Soon all we will have is Keir Starmer at PMQs for a few minutes once a week for part of the year (and not until September, now the Commons is on holiday). How long before No 10 seeks to “reform” Prime Minister’s Questions? Maybe they’ll try to wheel in Philip Schofield, Holly Willoughby or Alan Titchmarsh to calm the restless backbenchers.

Johnson should be explaining his decisions, his thinking, his plans in his own words. No one else can or should do that. No one else’s words can carry the authority required. No one else can know everything the PM does. The American example is not a particularly good one, and not just because of the Trump factor.

Democratically, it just doesn’t work. Behind-the-scenes chats and briefings have their place, for practical purposes, but the very idea of a public prime ministerial mouthpiece is an absurdity, a complete waste of money, and a pointless exercise the media should boycott, just like when the lobby walked out when Cummings tried to limit access to a briefing.

Thatcher and Tony Blair never needed anyone to make their case on their behalf; whatever you thought of what they did, they could speak for themselves. What does it tell us about the current incumbent that Johnson’s running away from scrutiny again?

That he’s not up to the job.

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