Just How Bad Was Boris Johnson’s Hospital Photo-Op?

Paul Waugh

Sign up now to get The Waugh Zone, our weekday evening politics briefing, by email.

Hospital pass

Another day, another incident where a Boris Johnson photo-op backfires? After the wilting police officer in Wakefield, the ‘get back to Westminster’ heckle in Rotherham and the ‘your cuts kill people’ confrontation in Doncaster, today saw him face an angry parent in an NHS hospital in east London.

Of course, the best-planned PR stunts always risk a rude collision with reality in the shape of the great British public. Omar Salem’s anger was palpable as he let rip at Johnson for the lack of staffing on the ward that meant his week-old daughter had been “neglected”.

In many ways, it was a breath of fresh air to hear the PM faced directly with the consequence of just how stretched the NHS is. Shortage of staff and hospital waiting times are exactly the kind of issue that can blow up during a general election and focus voters’ minds on issues that matter most to them.

Thanks to the fact that we are currently not formally in an election period, Johnson currently benefits hugely from the fact that broadcast restrictions don’t apply on equal airtime. Simply because he is the PM, he sucks in publicity. 

He can stage a visit to a hospital or school or warship and, even if he has no ‘announcement’ to make, get the footage on the TV news nationally and (just as importantly) locally. The trip to Whipp’s Cross hospital had no policy link (it is not one of the 20 hospitals being upgraded in the new cash boost unveiled by Johnson) and was simply another chance to show him hugging the NHS close.

Today’s visit of course turned out to be not the free PR hit No.10 imagined it might be. Salem exploded when Johnson said ‘there’s no press here’. Even though the PM meant ‘reporters’ rather than cameras, the criticism was still perfectly valid. This was no secret visit to a hospital (which Cameron and May often did) and denying it was a photo-op felt like another own goal from a PM already attacked as a serial liar (the Supreme Court said that again today). Aides stress that Johnson is “a people person” and that they want him on camera as much as humanly possible.

When Salem tweeted afterwards about the incident, it didn’t take long for some to spot that his Twitter bio describes him as “a Labour activist”. The BBC was hammered for pointing out his politics, but it took a No.10 source to shrewdly point out that was irrelevant. They told me:

“That doesn’t change a thing. He’s the parent of a child going through NHS treatment. If he’d been a Tory blue voting for 10 years, if you’d had a poor experience of your child in the NHS I’m pretty sure you’d feel the same way.”

But although today’s confrontation was uncomfortable for the PM, and is a reminder that he cannot cruise through a snap election campaign, there was another story under the radar. As he left the hospital, Johnson was cheered by contractors (yep, white van man), hospital staff and others who wanted selfies with him (as this clip shows). That quote, ’You’re doing a great job Boris!”, won’t make the TV news bulletins. 

Similarly, when Johnson was ambushed in Doncaster market last week, the more striking thing was the sheer amount of selfie-takers and well-wishers he encountered among the Yorkshire voters in a Labour heartland. Of course, you have to separate sheer celebrity from popularity. Yet, as several polls show (see below) it’s far from clear the PM’s election-that-isn’t-an-election strategy is failing.

Quote Of The Day

“We’ve got here the mother of parliaments being shut down by the father of lies.”

– Aidan O’Neill, representing a group of MPs in the Supreme Court, lambasts the PM’s prorogation of parliament

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Jeremy Corbyn refused to say whether he would campaign for Remain or Leave in a future EU referendum commissioned by a Labour government. He said instead: “I can never stay neutral when jobs and living standards are at stake and I will not. But I will make sure that people of this country will make that final decision.”

Mark Drakeford, Welsh First Minister, said “we as Welsh Labour, must and will campaign to remain in the EU” in a referendum. Drakeford may also be unhappy that the party’s NEC yesterday voted down plans to let Welsh Labour take control of local parliamentary selections.

The Supreme Court heard lawyers seize on the government’s leak to Sky News of the PM’s infamous line that parliament only sat in Septembers anyway because of “that girly swot Cameron”. The phrase had been blanked out from papers handed to the court, but the fact it was then leaked suggested it was political - and that all the redactions were unjustified.

European Commission Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned the UK: “Almost three years after the UK referendum, I don’t think we should be spending time pretending to negotiate.” But he will have cheered No.10 with his line that he had “no emotional attachment to the backstop”

MEPs agreed to offer another extension to the Brexit deadline, should the UK want one. In a non-binding resolution, the European parliament voted 544 in favour of another potential extension beyond October 31, with 126 against and 38 abstentions.

A new Economist aggregator of polls put the Tories on 34%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 18% and the Brexit Party 13%. But as Corbyn and the Libs stay stable, it’s the Tory gains and Brexit party falls that are most eye-catching.

What I’m Reading

How Cheap Drones Can Bypass Expensive Saudi Defences - The New Yorker.

Got A Tip?

Send tips, stories, quotes, pics, plugs or gossip to waugh.zone@huffpost.com.

Make sense of politics. Sign up to the Waugh Zone and get the political day in a nutshell.