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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era