Boris Johnson plays the bounder for political effect

UK Prime Minister's coalmine comments typical of the 'gaffes' that sustain his career

Boris Johnson quips about the closure of coalmines while on a visit to Scotland and the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, vent their disgust. Not just them, the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and union leaders and other Opposition figures; some Tories too.

Not for the first time the call goes up: Boris, Boris, what have you done? What he said, in the context of the UK switching to greener fuels, was this: “Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coalmines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.”

There are screams for an apology but none is forthcoming. All his official spokesman will say is: “The prime minister recognises the huge impact and pain closing coalmines had in communities across the UK.”

Nor will there be. Johnson knew what he was doing, he gauged what the reaction would be, it was said to poke and to startle, it was a calculated act. He isn’t going to say sorry for that.

He made it clear the comment was intended as a joke, and said to reporters: “I thought that would get you going.” Hang on, so this wasn’t blurting; this was deliberately said, pre-planned and considered.

It’s easy to dismiss Johnson as a buffoon who chucks out the first thing that comes into his head. That’s an impression he often gives.

The reality, though, is different. This is someone who, when he was a journalist, made up attributable quotes. That may not sound like much to those who have never worked in the media, indeed it may seem relatively trivial. In fact, it does not get any worse.

Johnson's cardinal media sin explains mindset

There are two sins in the press: plagiarism and falsification. The former happens frequently and may even occur subliminally – you read or hear something, then trot it out without thinking. It’s still wrong but can be excusable. Wholesale copying without crediting is more serious.

More extreme, however, is making up a quote and putting someone’s name to it. Johnson did that when he was at The Times and cited his Oxford-based godfather, an academic, as having said it.

The assumption must have been that the don would stand by his godson, that he wouldn’t mind. Well, he did care, he was furious in fact, complained, and Johnson duly lost his job.

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Johnson eats and breathes popularity

Johnson later told the filmmaker Michael Cockerell: “It was awful … I remember a deep, deep sense of shame and guilt … just not knowing how to sort it out … it was a bit of a bummer, frankly.”

This is a telling episode from Johnson’s life – it displays a level of deviousness that simply would not exist in others. And, while he said that to Cockerell, he followed the apparent mea culpa with something rather less, telling Eddie Mair in a radio interview when asked about the episode: “I mildly sandpapered something somebody said.”

So, what was he thinking, when he dropped in the reference to the miners and Mrs Thatcher? Johnson eats and breathes popularity. He reads the Telegraph first every day, followed by The Sun. Much of what he does or says is the result of having been run by, or emerged from, focus groups.

Coalmine gag made with an eye on Sunak threat

He studies their findings and opinions avidly. Just at the point when Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor and potential leadership rival, is climbing high in the charts and Johnson is falling, he invokes the Iron Lady and the miners, and in relation to the environment.

He says something that makes many people – not his political opponents – nod and murmur “good old Boris”. He’s having a laugh, not much of one, but a laugh, nonetheless. It’s what they love him for.

Johnson knows there will be fury, of course there will be – it’s a deplorable statement, also inaccurate.

The Tory faithful and MPs are getting twitchy, concerned about environmental measures that will dominate the agenda in the run-up to and beyond the climate changes talks at Cop26. Supporters, for instance, are moaning about having to trade in their diesel cars and having to face expensive new restrictions on home heating systems.

He can say it, too, because he can, because he’s Boris. Sunak, he knows, would never utter such a thing, never. Sunak is far too cautious for that. Besides, would Sunak ever dare have the courage to hark back to Thatcher? The Chancellor is from a Yorkshire constituency as well, so referencing the mines makes it even more unlikely.

Only he, Boris, can be so daring and clever, linking Thatcher and the mines with the present, with his priorities. It’s what he’s known for, why he wins and why criticism falls off him. This is a Prime Minister, we now know, thanks to his embittered former adviser, Dominic Cummings, who chooses to create chaos, who sets out to have a Cabinet comprising ministers he knows are not up to the task.

Sure, that is grossly irresponsible – he is playing with departments of state, after all – but it doesn’t half make Johnson look good, the king above the fray, the one certainty to whom they owe their allegiance.

Johnson inured to barbs from Sturgeon and Starmer

Here’s another aspect to the method in his madness: he knows that every time Sturgeon and Starmer pop up on our screens, those Boris must woo if he is to win the next general election are turned off.

How can he be so sure? Because his private polling tells him so. They can’t do anything, those two: they can huff and puff but they can’t bring the house down; he, Boris, is in charge. It’s the summer recess as well, so he does not even have to explain himself to the boring pedant opposite.

No, you can see what was in his head. Reach for a grenade, tug out the pin and lob it, same as you’ve done before. There will be an explosion, definitely. As he said, that will get them going.

It’s a classic dead cat play. Brilliant. Next, a leak appears saying that Johnson actively suggested demoting Sunak. Again, more outrage. It’s a leak about a leak as well – the first was a leaked letter portraying Sunak as an action man as the Chancellor argued for a relaxation of travel restrictions. What does Boris do?

A report appears saying that he told a meeting: “'I've been thinking about it. Maybe it's time we looked at Rishi as the next secretary of state for health. He could potentially do a very good job there.'”

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The best way for [Johnson's] enemies and rivals to deal with him would be to not react, to say nothing. But he knows they won’t do that

A senior government source is quoted as saying: “In an open meeting, after ranting about Rishi, he then suggested the Chancellor could be demoted in the next reshuffle.”

Wait, he knew it would get out. It was an “open meeting”. It was Johnson being boss again. Sunak may be climbing the rankings, but he, Boris, is in charge. Only he has the power to fire or promote.

He realises, too, that those the party polls and quizzes in focus groups don’t yet entirely get or trust Sunak. The Chancellor remains very much an unknown – unlike the extremely known Johnson.

We’re informed Johnson issued his threat “half in jest”. So, quite intentional then. As Boris suggested, a propos of the other supposedly off-the-cuff remark about the mines and global warming, that will get them going. And it does.

Johnson, we’re informed, wants to be loved. He needs our attention. The best way for his enemies and rivals to deal with him would be to not react, to say nothing.

But he knows they won’t do that. They will shout and protest, because they must, and he will sail on – same as he did in the mayoral, leadership and general elections, when he came out with outrageous statements and won. Keep provoking, keep reminding folk who is in charge. And on we go.

Boris Johnson's two years as prime minister - in pictures

Published: August 11th 2021, 12:21 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London