A bruised Boris Johnson leaves office next week as his sulking cheerleaders continue to insist that he was an honourable man brought down by the nasty British media.
Deep down, the outgoing Prime Minister, who was himself a journalist before catapulting himself into the world of politics, knows this is a lie. He may still be clinging to it, like one would a comfort blanket, but the simple fact is his downfall was no one’s fault but his own – and not just thanks to the lockdown parties, the misleading of MPs and the erosion of standards in public office that defined his premiership.
Johnson consistently failed to sincerely engage with the media – and by extension their readers and viewers. He spent his time in No 10 courting cameras and columnists, but avoiding their questions. He agreed to precious few one-on-one broadcast interviews and, when he did, sought to bluster his way past the difficult questions by pumping out boosterism as though it was a speech.
His ministers dodged Newsnight, Good Morning Britain and BBC Radio 4’s Today. Johnson’s thinking on important issues was seeped through to right-wing newspapers via “sources close to the PM”. The No 10 operation used wild accusations to bounce the news agenda away from its failings.
In short, Johnson signalled at every turn that he believed himself to be above the scrutiny that the public have a right to expect of their politicians. It is a big part of how a leader that won an 80-seat majority managed to lose all his authority in less than three years.
Johnson was a campaigner. Tony Blair, the man whose success Johnson desperately wanted to emulate, was a politician. He knew that part of his job was to engage with the media. He was careful not to ignore readers and viewers, thus exposing the contempt such treatment indicates. Similarly, both David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher agreed regularly to sit-down interviews. They tried to win the argument – some would say they even enjoyed the challenge.
The public sees a politician’s willingness to be interviewed as a sign of political health, even if they suffer something akin to a beating. It is part of the deal when a leader assumes power, when they begin to speak on Britain’s behalf.
Successful prime ministers use the media to their advantage early and often, and they are usually rewarded with longer careers. Cameron, Blair and Thatcher were all re-elected, despite their mistakes in office and the division they sowed.
In contrast, while Gordon Brown and Theresa May were gifted policy brains, it was clear they regarded the media with suspicion. Which, in turn, provoked the suspicion of the general public and journalists towards them.
There is an obvious lesson here for the – likely – incoming prime minister, Liz Truss, who pulled out of an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson on Monday (29 August). As an excuse, her team cited the huge challenges the next PM must contend with, not least the looming cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s war with Ukraine. Johnson similarly sidestepped the Andrew Neil BBC interview that his opponents in 2019, including Jeremy Corbyn (who was deeply unpopular at the time), begrudgingly submitted themselves to.
The communications “experts” advising Truss no doubt argue that the risk of a long-form interview outweighs the reward. Maybe that is true for a politician focused only on short-term goals. But playing to the gallery while running away from serious scrutiny is not a long-term strategy.
Johnson learned the hard way that a PM’s mandate is not decided at the ballot box on one day. It is an ongoing test. In avoiding the BBC, Truss may kid herself she has passed with flying colours. But if she’s as smart as her supporters say she is, she knows she can’t hide forever.
[See also: Boris Johnson was a catastrophe for Britain]