The one lesson Tory leadership hopefuls should take from Boris Johnson
Now that the Boris Johnson era is drawing messily to a close it’s a good time to look back and try to understand just how he managed to climb to the top of the greasy pole; how did this allegedly shambolic, allegedly amoral and allegedly dishonest man do it? Twenty years ago the idea that Johnson would become prime minister would have seemed fanciful to most, but the key to explaining the irresistible rise of Boris is his relationship with the media. Understanding how he did it is an object lesson especially for the Tory MPs who are competing to replace him. And the thing they, and we, should focus on most was Boris’s mastery of television.
I very much doubt whether the production team at the long-running BBC show Have I Got News For You are natural Johnson supporters; but it was his appearances on their show which played a significant part in his rise. He was guest presenter of the programme four times between 2002 and 2006 – years when he was the MP for Henley – and, boy, did he make the most of the opportunity. If you look back now at the shows what stands out is the way Johnson soaks up the abuse. Sponge-like, he rides the punches thrown by Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. The tone of the show is mocking but mainly affectionate, however there were some sharp barbs thrown Johnson’s way; Hislop, in particular, is clearly no fan.
There were many jokes made at the Boris’s expense, and at the Tory Party’s too, but he remained unruffled and good-humoured. This takes some doing; a more thin-skinned politician would have taken issue and taken umbrage but not Boris. It takes massive self-confidence to carry off this kind of public self-deprecation. How many other politicians can you imagine doing this so effortlessly? Try to imagine Keir Starmer in the hot-seat and you begin to get a measure of the difference between the two men.
What’s fascinating about Boris’s appearances on HIGNFY is the way that by volunteering to put his head in the stocks and allowing Hislop and Merton to throw ordure at him Boris enlists the audience’s support; we’re in on the joke and we end up sympathising and liking him. You come away thinking this man is a good sport, he can take a joke at his own expense. It was HIGNFY that gave Johnson the platform to reach a national audience quite different from the readership of the Daily Telegraph and people who listen to platform speeches at the Conservative Party conference. And it was HIGNFY that provided the springboard from which he launched his campaign to become mayor of London.
On Friday evening the first leadership debate will be on Channel 4, the second will be on ITV on Sunday and the last on Sky on Monday (it’s significant that the BBC has not been given a debate; distrust of the Corporation runs deep). These debates will, of course, be nothing like HIGNFY but if any of the candidates have the time they’d do well to study, and learn from Johnson’s mastery of the medium. Turning TV into your ally has become an essential tool in every politician’s armoury; fail this test and you are dead in the water.
One thing TV is very good at is allowing us, the audience, to read body-language. It’s not so much what is said, as how it is said. The professional analysts will be parsing every word by every candidate to discover what they’re saying about tax cuts and the “cost of living crisis” (candidates please note – if you use the “crisis” word you’re playing into Labour’s hand); but for many people the demeanour of each individual will be as important as the fine-grain of policy detail. The audience will very soon spot any candidate who is uptight and brittle; a relaxed and confident manner is always winning.
It might seem obvious now, to us, that in TV, appearance matters most – to that extent it is a meretricious medium – but this lesson was learned the hard way by Richard Nixon back in 1960. In that year the first ever presidential candidates debates were conducted; there were four of them pitting Nixon against John F Kennedy and they proved to be highly significant, some people say decisive, factors in the outcome.
Nixon came across badly – in the first debate he looked sweaty, stressed and tense; JFK managed to appear relaxed and confident. What’s interesting is that while the TV audience rated Kennedy a clear winner those who listened on the radio (the debates were broadcast live on both mediums) thought Nixon won. That’s because radio focuses the listener’s attention more on the content of what is being said whereas TV offers a set of visual clues which distract from the content; and for many the visual trumps the audible.
Those debates drove home the point to aspiring leaders: TV matters. And since then a huge body of instruction has been built up so that now there is a large media-training industry ready to lead the wannabes through the process of mastering the medium. Unfortunately much of this media training is designed to help politicians avoid giving answers to difficult questions; at its worst media training is a production line that turns out identikit performers.
I’ve done a little of this training myself before giving it up as a bad job – a bad job because it treats TV interviews as a cynical exercise in tactical diversion and evasion. Thus, looking back at my notes from the time, I find that one strategy, recommended in all the manuals is when asked a difficult question, to answer another question altogether which forces the interviewer to repeat the first query.
How often have you heard this tactic employed? Time without number, I’d guess. And it goes without saying that for the audience it’s an infuriating ploy which merely reinforces the idea that the politician is a slippery, lying so and so. There’s nothing wrong with trying to help people prepare themselves for a TV interview – it’s a daunting prospect – but it seems that much media training is designed to frustrate legitimate inquiry.
The tactic outlined above, for instance, works insofar as it enables a politician to “talk out” the interview. All interview slots are time-limited and that works to an interviewees advantage if they want to avoid making embarrassing admissions.
The ubiquity of media training has rendered a large proportion of political interviews almost entirely pointless; politicians, and others, have been provided with an arsenal of counter-measures and the arms race between the two sides results in stalemate. The aggressive interviewer meets the stubborn politician determined to avoid answering the question; it’s an unrewarding formula and it doesn’t endear a politician to the public.
Another thing that the manuals all say is that TV is a “cool” medium: losing one’s temper is , generally speaking, a bad idea. The conventional wisdom is that those who prosper in front of the camera are those who stay calm and reasoned, who make their points clearly and who are not shouty.
In this, as in so much else, Boris proved the exception; his success owed nothing to manual or media trainer; he is his own creation. So the question is whether the candidates can usefully borrow anything from the Johnson playbook to assist their rise.
How well will the candidates do in front of the cameras? Here’s my assessment of their abilities as performers:
Rishi Sunak: Very fluent but can seem glib - there’s a thin line between charm and smarm and he sometimes crosses it. He smiles too much – too obviously wants us to like him and is maybe a bit thin-skinned.
Penny Mordaunt: Good body language and a straight talker; a very reassuring and pleasant face. She is the Captain Sensible of HMS Mordaunt.
Liz Truss: Somehow unconvincing in her delivery – does she actually believe what she’s saying? Perhaps as an ex Lib-Dem she’s trying too hard to be true blue?
Kemi Badenoch: A natural performer. Nothing about her seems false or forced ; she comes across as honest, grounded and plausible. Top marks.
Suella Braverman: Optimistic and passionate. You would never doubt her conviction; her cheerfulness warms the heart but perhaps lacks authority?
Tom Tugendhat: Clearly the ‘serious man for serious times’ candidate. Disciplined but can seem dour; needs to leaven his offering. More optimism please.
In the forthcoming debates I expect them all to be on their best behaviour; ad hominem attacks are likely to be counter-productive – there will be a veneer, at least, of civility. But the one who emerges as winner is likely to be the one who, as well as offering sensible policies, gives the impression of being sincere and happy in their own skin.
As of now all the candidates are bunched together – a political peloton hurtling towards the finish line. At some point a couple of them will breakaway and leave the others behind. They will then have to bring the voters – Tory Party members – round to their side. Their policy offerings will be important but just as critical will be the impression they make, as human beings, on the rest of us.
And as Boris Johnson’s extraordinary story shows being likeable, fun, a “good sport” and optimistic can be a winning formula. It’s something to do with authenticity – and that’s not something that any amount of media training can teach.