Boris Johnson’s rule-breaking persona was carefully developed by the Conservatives for the 2019 general election, but Labour are now cleverly using it against him.
A vital part of running a successful general election campaign is defining in voters’ minds the character of your leader and that of the opponent.
The evidence for the importance of the perception of leaders is that in every UK General Election since 1979 the party leader with the highest satisfaction rates went on to win the most seats.
The way in which campaigns try to mould perceptions of a leader’s character is to define and repeat a simple story about their personal history or style that impacts their ability to achieve their political objective.
In the build-up to the 2019 general election one of the strategic advisors to the national Conservative Party campaign told me that the narrative devised for Boris Johnson was that he was “the punk PM who doesn’t care what it takes to get Brexit done”.
This strategic narrative manifested in refusing to follow conventions about which interviews to do, behaving bullishly at debates and doing stunts like riding a digger through a brick wall emblazoned with the word ‘deadlock’.
Those doubting this suprising positioning of the Old Etonian leader should note the references to The Clash in their Vogue-style party election broadcast, the occasional homage to the Sex Pistols and the regular deployment of the slightly anarchic, DIY-style art direction of their slogan.
They hoped this rebellious spirit would appeal to people who hadn’t voted Conservative before. And they were right.
BritainThinks, an insight and strategy consultancy, conducted research during the 2019 general election campaign which found that those who voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum – many of whom lived in areas that traditionally voted Labour and ended up switching to the Conservatives in their droves – perceived him as someone that was “trying to get things done…and there are loads of obstacles in the way.”
As far as I know, BritainThinks’ research didn’t come across a respondent explaining their perception of Boris Johnson using the precise words “the punk PM who doesn’t care what it takes to get Brexit done”. But one voter came close by saying “at least Boris Johnson has a pair and is standing up for what he said he would do.”
This successful positioning of Johnson during the 2019 election as a politician that was willing to rip up the rule book in order to deliver for the British public evolved since he took office.
In research conducted in early 2020 and published in ‘Beyond The Red Wall’, Deborah Mattinson (co-founder of BritainThinks and now Keir Starmer’s Director of Strategy) found that the view amongst people who switched from Labour to Conservative in ‘19 in battleground northern towns, like Darlington and Hyndburn, appeared to have solidified into perceiving him as a canny buffoon.
One focus group respondent that Mattinson interviewed, Julie from Darlington, said in a comment that was typical of other respondents “Yes, he acts like a buffoon. He does daft things but he’s smart!”.
The ‘canny’ aspect is useful to Johnson as it means that his decisions are assumed to be informed by superior intellect. The ‘buffoon’ element means that he doesn’t care for norms about how to behave; this is a helpful trait for Johnson when he wants to be seen as taking on the establishment or vested interests to achieve his goals.
If you believe that the perception of a leader’s character has a significant impact on the performance of their party, Boris Johnson’s ‘Canny Buffoon’ personal narrative has served the Conservartive Party very well indeed.
Politico’s poll of polls has had the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party on national Parliament voting intention from the moment Johnson became Prime Minister in December ‘19 until late November ‘21.
This suggests that the public were willing to give the PM the benefit of the doubt when it came to any bungling of the pandemic response. Perhaps they were not convinced anyone else would have the smarts to stop the virus.
And the public have seemed willing to ride out any turbulence generated thanks to the UK’s departure from the EU. Maybe there was a sense that previous PMs have been too worried about upsetting international norms, rather than serving Britain’s best interest, and that transitional challenges are to be expected.
But in December something changed.
The double whammy of the Owen Paterson saga and various Downing St covid-rule-breaking parties led to Labour overtaking the Conservatives and Boris Johnson’s leadership approval rating hitting its lowest ebb so far.
My sense is that the reason that these two events have combined to be so damaging is that Labour’s reaction to them managed to shape the media narrative in a way that shifted the ‘Canny Buffoon’ perception of the PM.
It has been impossible to ignore media coverage of Labour’s accusation that these are examples of Boris Johnson’s belief that it’s one rule for him and another for everyone else and that there are tangible negative consequences because of this.
For example, the media have frequently reported on the idea that Downing St’s covid parties have eroded public trust in government guidance on how to protect against the pandemic.
I believe that many now see Johnson’s rule breaking as a more self-serving characteristic, whereas previously it was perceived to be largely deployed to further the interests of the country.
Using a characterisation which the public already believe about Johnson, but highlighting the mismanagement it creates, cleverly turns a Johnson strength into a weakness.
Dominic Cummings has also helped direct the media narrative in this regard. The PM’s former Chief of Staff’s nickname for his former boss is The Trolley: a thoughtless object aimlessly careering into things.
Labour’s challenge is to continue to find ways to link issues and events that are negatively perceived by the public – and ideally influence voting intention – with Johnson’s characteristic of ‘ignoring the rules for his own benefit’.
If they can do this they have every chance of changing Boris Johnson from being seen as the canny buffoon – an intelligent optimist who’s charmingly dishevelled and wants to level up the parts of the country left behind by Labour – into careless Captain Chaos who’s selfish incompetence is sinking the good ship Britannia.
And how should Labour characterise their own leader to positively contrast with this reckless rule-breaker?
Enter the career public servant who uses personal fortitude and belief in the rule of law to stand up to threatening adversaries in order to make Britain a fairer place.