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6 December 2019

Why Boris Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed on TV is unlikely to affect his campaign

Voters think that Johnson is a liar, but they think he's simply the apex predator in a political system dominated by lies.

By Stephen Bush

The BBC has released a short clip of Andrew Neil lambasting Boris Johnson for becoming the first Prime Minister in British political history to swerve a sitdown political interview with the channel – as ITV has also announced that Johnson will also swerve a prolonged interview with Julie Etchingham.

Will it matter? Well, one of the important political changes in the age of social media is the loss of control for both major parties, as the Guardian’s Jim Waterson explains well in this fascinating piece about how we follow news on our smartphones. An unplanned moment – one of Boris Johnson’s remarks about single mothers, a yelp of frustration on Jeremy Corbyn’s part during a television interview – could end up being the political clip that goes viral and shifts the votes of millions of people. It was the fear that Jacob Rees-Mogg – who both physically embodies and frequently articulates many of the fears people have about the Tory party – could provide such a moment that led to him being sent to Siberia after his remarks about Grenfell Tower.

So it’s possible that this Neil clip might crystallise something about Johnson and his remodelled Conservative Party that results in a decisive shift away from the Tories, whether among Labour Leavers or Conservative Remainers or a bit of both. Our dysfunctional electoral system means that the Conservative poll lead – of around ten points – is only a tiny shift away from a Tory landslide or a Labour minority government.

That could still happen, but I doubt that Johnson’s decision to swerve the Neil interview will be it. Voters think that Johnson is a liar but they think he’s simply the apex predator in a political system dominated by lies. That he turned up for a head-to-head debate with Corbyn on ITV and will attend another on the BBC tonight, as well as being interviewed on the BBC and ITV’s breakfast programmes means that he’s probably done enough to escape the charge in voters’ minds that he is running from scrutiny.

In any case, how it plays in one election is almost beside the point. Johnson’s behaviour is bad but it’s part of a trend: no major leader since 2005 has sat down for an hour-long television interview. David Cameron axed Labour’s monthly press conferences when he became prime minister. CCHQ began to cherrypick questions at press conferences and Labour HQ quickly followed suit. Social media and a fractured media environment both make it easier for the major parties to play divide and rule, picking the interviews and media opportunities that suit them. It may be that when we look back at the Corbyn era the most radical thing about it isn’t its policy programme but its willingness to talk for even 30 unbroken minutes about politics.

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