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26 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:59pm

Boris Johnson’s disappearing act is more risky as prime minister than as mayor

Johnson is gifting political space to Labour and the Liberal Democrats at a national level.

By Stephen Bush

He’s back! Boris Johnson will make a rare public appearance – at Prime Minister’s Questions today. For those familiar with Johnson’s time at City Hall, particularly his first term, it feels eerily similar: as mayor, Johnson pared back his public meetings to the bare minimum. 

If Keir Starmer develops a tendency to get the better of Johnson at PMQs, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see still less of the Prime Minister. Dominic Raab versus Angela Rayner will probably become a near thrice-weekly feature. (That might well suit Raab, who dislikes the amount of travelling his role involves.) 

Of course, in the end, Johnson was re-elected, and in a pretty impressive fashion, considering that he did it in a year in which Conservative candidates were losing pretty much everywhere. Will it be the same story at Westminster? 

Possibly, but there’s a bigger risk involved in repeating Johnson’s approach at a national level. The mayor of London can opt out of set-piece events because there is little risk that their opponents will be handed the microphone instead. To the extent that anyone in London heard from a local opponent of Johnson, all they would have picked up was grumbling about the mayor dodging this event or that interview.  

But Johnson’s Macavity act carries a very different risk at Westminster. One of the biggest advantages that any government has is that it has first dibs on the day’s news. That’s why opposition politicians, be they former Labour prime minister Tony Blair or stand-in Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, have to do their big speeches at the end of the week – because it is traditionally the time when they are least likely to be competing with the government for headlines.

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As mayor, Johnson could pick and choose when to turn up, safe in the knowledge that his opponents in City Hall weren’t going to be able to fill the airwaves in his absence. A political approach that gives quite so much space to Labour and the Liberal Democrats at a national level is a very different proposition.