Voices: This is why I’ll miss Boris Johnson, king of the vox pop

Whatever Boris Johnson’s achievements in office – or lack thereof – he was an absolutely storming success in one regard: making the journalistic vox pop a joy.

Ah, the vox pop.

For the uninitiated, this is where a reporter is sent out into the streets and squares, the pubs and parks, of a particular town to ask people what they think of any given event or situation. It is, so to speak, a sounding of the public mood, a taking of the temperature, a dip in the sea of the national zeitgeist.

They are occasionally derided too. Done badly, they are anodyne collections of cliches, commonplace-isms and wildly misinformed views. At their very worst, they bring to mind the famous Sid Vicious retort when asked what he thought the man on the street made of his music.

“I’ve met the man on the street,” he replies. “And he’s a c***.”

Yet vox pops – done well – offer unrivalled insight into public opinion. Speaking to just a couple of handfuls of people in one particular place may not be a wholly scientific way to assess which way the proverbial wind is blowing. But, combined with analysis, context and colour, they provide clues to the country’s currents. They are the wisdom of crowds distilled into 800 words.

Don’t believe me? Go through any newspaper archive and read a vox pop from before the Brexit vote. The result shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. It was being screamed in our faces all along. It was the same during the 2019 general election. While my social media feeds repeatedly told me Jeremy Corbyn was on course for a monumental victory, my notebook – which had travelled across the north – said the then Labour leader was facing a possible massacre.

Indulge me for a second but vox pops are the reason that, ahead of that year’s general election, I wrote that Johnson may win but that, once he’d got Brexit done, he’d be unceremoniously booted out of office. Although I admit, I thought it would be the British electorate – not his own party – what would do the booting.

(For balance, after speaking to people in North Shropshire in December, I also told my news editor that I would personally present Match of the Day in my underpants if the Tories lost the by-election there)

In any case, I confess I like getting out there and asking people this stuff.

Contrary to the view of Sid Vicious – who really was a c*** – the person on the street tends to be a pleasure to talk to. In the last couple of years I’ve asked for views on by-elections, transport cuts, the cost of living crisis and just how good a Greggs steak bake is. And the replies have been everything from funny to outraged, moving to wise, and almost always generous.

But, of course, the one subject I have bothered people about most has been the prime minister. And, to get back to the original point, he has made it a delight.

Whether people love or hate him, they always – like always always always – have an opinion, and 99 times out of 100 they are more than willing to avail themselves of it. The process barely requires a specific question anymore. I introduce myself, and then four words will suffice: “What about Boris then?” And they’re off.

Three general reactions dominate. A wide smile. A sigh of exasperation. Or a weary question back: “what’s he done now?” Because of course, he’s done something! It’s Boris!

Of late, as the sighs have increasingly outnumbered the smiles, I’ve begun to wonder if there are any lessons to extrapolate from this. I think the British people have – sometimes despite themselves – rather liked having a clown-in-chief. I think they have enjoyed the spectacle and the show. “He’s a soap character,” one person in Richmond said to me this week, and it wasn’t entirely a condemnation.

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And, I think, because it’s all been good entertainment – you could have a pint with, Boris – he was granted a certain lassitude. But perhaps only to a point. Namely the point where you become widely seen as dishonest.

Policy failures and buffoonish behaviour may get a pass – certainly in the unprecedented situation of the pandemic – but lying does not. Lying does not get forgiven. Attempting to wheedle one’s way out of a sticky situation with dishonesty is scorned – even when done with a wink and a smile and a rub of the mop.

“You can accept a mistake,” a woman in a Wetherspoon pub said to me this week. “But not a lie.”

It means that yes, I will miss getting to ask people about him – but I suspect the British people at large are now rather glad he’s gone.