Would Boris Johnson rather be attacked by a dozen duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

The London Mayor's Twitter Q&A showed the perils of engaging with voters on digital platforms without really understanding them.

"Ask Boris is the latest in our series of Talk London events, your chance to talk to the Mayor about what matters most to you," suggested one of Boris's marketing whiz kids at City Hall. "Join us on Twitter to talk about what makes London the best big city in the world."
 
And so they did. In their thousands, tweeters took to the network to ask Johnson such vital questions as "Does it annoy you that Custard Creams from Tesco are normally all broken?" and: "Which would you prefer? To be attacked by a dozen duck sized horses or attacked by one horse sized duck?"
 
The Mayor might have expected abuse, but instead he faced a series of increasingly surreal questions: "Time flies like an arrow, whereas fruit flies like a banana - discuss/comment?" asked one concerned follower. "Did Bono finally find what he was looking for?" asked another.
 
The session quickly got out of hand. "Boris Johnson is doing a Twitter Q&A under #askboris and naturally some people aren't taking it seriously. Have a look," suggested one user. And before Boris could properly get to grips with the important topic of  "how many chucks can a woodchuck chuck" or decide between Curly Wurly bars and fudge fingers, #askBoris was one of the top trending topics in the world.
 
Whilst previous sessions had lasted a whole hour, the Mayor made a swift exit at half time citing previously unmentioned "diary commitments". Meanwhile most of the genuine and difficult questions posed by Londoners remained unanswered. Many users were left feeling that it was them, rather than the mayor, who had been taken for a ride.
 
"So @mayoroflondon chooses to answer questions about duck sized horses, but not about his 9 point plan for London," complained one follower. "So the #askboris session seemed to RT a whole bunch of questions and provide no answers...how very like a politician" complained another.
 
Boris later declared the session a resounding success with City Hall compiling an official mayoral report claiming that 553,076 users had been reached by the Twitter trend.
 
Whether any of those 500,000 were even remotely better informed about London issues is another matter, but in terms of promoting the Boris brand #askboris undoubtedly served its purpose.
 
Other politicians' Twitter question and answer sessions have not been quite as benign. Last year Ed Miliband was the target of particularly barbed questions on the site.
 
"If you give a speech, but nobody cares, do you make a sound?' asked one typically dismissive user on the site. "Do you feel bad about stabbing your brother in the back? asked many others.
 
What both examples show however is that so many politicians have completely failed to understand how social media works. For most users, conversations on Twitter and Facebook do not happen by prior appointment, but are part of their everyday lives.

Of course there are some politicians who understand this, and who actually use Twitter as a major part of their daily work.
 
But by setting up occasional brief Q+A sessions, Johnson and Miliband are almost asking for people to exploit and ridicule them. Not only are they sticking their heads in the public stocks, they are actually handing out sponges and cream pies for people to throw at them as well.

Of course being the Mayor of London or the leader of the opposition might not leave much time to spend answering endless questions on Twitter. 

But if they haven't got the time to properly to get to grips with social media then perhaps they shouldn't bother trying at all.

Boris Johnson is pretty much the definition of "in touch with the electorate". Photo: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories