There are a lot of things that will mark Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister, however long it lasts. His sacking of 21 Tory rebels – including Winston Churchill’s very own grandson – will be one. When – and how, and if – the UK leaves the European Union would be another.
But his confrontations with voters are rapidly becoming another hallmark of his time at Number 10. Johnson may only have been prime minister for 60 days, but his premiership has already been punctuated with many challenges by members of the public.
This past week delivered the most significant – and viral – one yet. As cameras rolled during an official visit to a hospital in east London, the parent of a sick baby took Johnson to task over the state of the NHS.
“There are not enough people on this ward, there are not enough doctors, there’s not enough nurses, it’s not well-organised enough,” the man told Johnson. “The NHS has been destroyed… and now you come here for a press opportunity.”
It’s not the only time Johnson has faced such anger in recent weeks when venturing outside the bounds of Westminster. During a trip to Yorkshire last week, he was lambasted by a woman for having “the cheek” to visit Doncaster.
“People have died because of austerity and then you’ve got the cheek to come here and tell us that austerity’s over and it’s all good now – we’re gonna leave the EU and everything’s going to be great,” she said. “It’s just a fairytale.”
The week before, a walkabout in the north ended with the PM being heckled about his Brexit deal – or lack of one. “You should be in Brussels negotiating – where’s the negotiating going on?” an angry man shouted at Johnson. “You’re in Morley in Leeds, you should be in Brussels.”
Anecdotally, it feels like Johnson has been confronted more often – and more publicly – than his predecessors in Number 10. But why is that the case, and what exactly has changed? Is it the prime minister – or the public?
For those who have worked inside Downing Street, it is Johnson who has changed the game.
“There is something unique about the willingness of people (not just activists) to confront this PM,” Matthew O’Toole, a former spokesperson for Number 10, tweeted on Wednesday.
Re hospital fiasco. As a civil servant who worked on countless media operations & visits for controversial senior politicians, there is something unique about the willingness of people (not just activists) to confront this PM in public (thread)...— Matthew O'Toole (@MatthewOToole2) September 18, 2019
“It must be at least partly related to his own insistence on flouting convention and the sense of permission that some people take from that,” he continued.
“George Osborne or David Cameron were hardly loved – and were frequently loathed – but they rarely got the treatment that Boris constantly gets.”
It’s a view echoed by Giles Kenningham, who was head of political press for Cameron when he was prime minister.
“I think they [confrontations by the public] are becoming more common,” he told HuffPost UK. “With all of these things, part of Boris’ appeal is that he is free-flowing – he’s not a homogenous politician, and people like that engagement.”
Kenningham added: “You’ve got to accept that it’s part of the job. If you don’t like those robust exchanges, then you shouldn’t be doing frontline politics.”
But are people confronting the prime minister so frequently simply because they feel more able to? Because Johnson has lowered some kind of invisible drawbridge and invited people in?
Dr Tereza Capelos, a lecturer of political psychology at the University of Birmingham, thinks not.
For her, it is the public’s fears about the things they care about most – heightened by Brexit uncertainty – that are driving these exchanges. It may seem like it is anger that is pushing people to confront the prime minister – but Capelos says that the real cause is anxiety.
“Austerity and the NHS are very important considerations to people,” Capelos said. “These are the two issues that have come up when voters have confronted Boris in the past few days.”
The salience of these issues has been heightened “because of the anxieties of Brexit”, she continued.
“So although we see a lot in the press about the angry citizens that are confronting Boris, my work suggests that it’s not anger that is driving it. Actually, it is anxiety. It’s anxiety about the welfare of loved ones, like in the case of the father talking about his child.
“It wasn’t a big political statement about the NHS – it was about how the NHS should provide services to someone you care about… This was a very emotionally-loaded question with a lot of anxiety about the well-being of a child.”
Barry Richards, a professor of political psychology at Bournemouth University, believes Brexit has less to do with it, however. Instead, he blames “decades” of growing cynicism about politicians.
“I’m afraid journalists have got something to answer for on that front, because journalism has tended to take quite a cynical take on politicians,” he said.
This is one factor that has led to a situation where “an awful lot of people think that politicians are rubbish, interested in themselves, lying all the time, can’t trust them, all that kind of stuff”.
“That is I think the background to the sense of confrontation and conflict that we’ve got around at the moment,” Richards continued.
“And it may be that Johnson coming into Number 10 in this context is going to get more people trying to confront him on things because of the general atmosphere, as well as the fact that he is – in terms of what he is doing – a particularly confrontational politician.”
But what does the man himself think? What is Boris Johnson’s take on the people facing off with him?
I’ve been PM for 57 days, part of my job is to talk to people on the ground and listen to what they tell me about the big problems. It doesn’t matter if they agree with me.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 18, 2019
I’m glad this gentleman told me his problems. This isn’t an embarrassment this is part of my job. https://t.co/j60ODrROXi
In a tweet after his exchange in Whipps Cross hospital on Wednesday, he wrote: “I’ve been PM for 57 days, part of my job is to talk to people on the ground and listen to what they tell me about the big problems.
“It doesn’t matter if they agree with me. I’m glad this gentleman told me his problems. This isn’t an embarrassment, this is part of my job.”