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SKY NEWS correspondent Beth Rigby skewered Boris Johnson at his campaign launch this week, telling him: “You brandish your Brexit credentials, but many of your colleagues worry about your character.” Johnson hammed up his buffoon act, asking why he was being questioned about his “parrot.” Rigby continued: “You brought shame on your party when you described veiled Muslim women as letterboxes and bank robbers.” Unsurprisingly, the audience of the Tory Party faithful booed.
But Johnson skilfully turned it round to a defence of politicians not “muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find – covering everything up in bureaucratic platitudes, when what they want to hear is what we genuinely think.”
The trouble is, he’s right. His own modus operandi is that of a total fake — but like Donald Trump, he’ll be let off thanks to the failures of the wider political class.
When Johnson spoke of “Kosovo-style social cleansing” and Nick Clegg said this was offensive to ethnic Albanians, it was infuriating to see gratuitous offence trump the real issue — even though Johnson was never seriously going to oppose the internal deportation of poor Londoners to other part of the country (thanks to Tory benefit caps and his own failure to build genuinely affordable homes).
It’s right to take Johnson to task for discriminatory language. But let’s bear in mind that when he responds in this way, he’s likely to come out even stronger, outside the bubble at least. That Johnson is, in the words of broadcaster Eddie Mair, a “nasty piece of work,” does indeed make him unfit for office. But when we simply focus on “character,” we risk suggesting that “nice” Tories like Rory Stewart or Ruth Davidson are contrastingly fit to be PM — even though they would continue to pursue policies that are destroying the fabric of British society.
Let’s not forget either that Johnson’s personal charisma helped him take on the image of a liberal Tory away from the pack who could be trusted to be London’s mayor — a role that built him up for the top job he’s now likely to take.
So journalists would do better to focus on the material impact of Johnson’s prejudice (the reported rise in hate crime after his “letterbox” outburst), as well as his policy failures (an end to Tube strikes?), his outrageous waste of public funds on vanity projects (the Thames cable car, the Thames garden bridge) and the brutal impact of his brazen lies and laziness (Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, anyone?) He’d be stuck for an answer to which viewers could relate.
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