To defeat Boris Johnson, Labour must not underestimate him

The new prime minister will obfuscate, avoid accountability, brazenly steal policies and close down as many attack lines as he can to defend his position. 

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These notes consider some of the questions facing the Labour Party as Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, in part based on my own experiences. They are intended to be a contribution to how Labour operates in this new political environment.

I am in the somewhat unusual situation of having been the director of campaigns both against Boris Johnson and for Jeremy Corbyn.

I was the then-mayor of London’s chief of staff when Johnson declared his ultimately successful candidacy for the mayoralty in 2007 and we headed into a bruising electoral battle. I was then London Labour’s director of campaigns and research for the general election of 2010, in a role that worked up Tory attack lines in London and aimed to reduce Johnson’s role as an electoral asset for the Tories. I ran Ken Livingstone’s selection campaign to once again be Labour’s candidate for mayor, and was his campaign’s chief of staff for the 2012 London mayoral election. That is quite a few years studying — and fighting — Boris Johnson.

There are a number of lessons from all this time in the trenches against Johnson. One crystal clear lesson is that far too many people underestimate him.

Many good people inadvertently participate in the creation of Boris Johnson’s political persona, laughing along with one tousle-haired stunt and gaffe after another, believing that these things are damaging to him. They are not. Johnson thrives on being a figure of fun because people like fun. His antics shield him from the reality of his Tory politics and his multiple failures as a political administrator. Far from “buffoon” being a term that causes him trouble, it is an asset, a smile-inducing diversionary construct.

As recently as this leadership election he demonstrated that he is still very much at it. Just as serious questions were being asked about his character following reports of a startling row with his partner, he embarked on a bizarre discourse about painting buses on the side of cardboard boxes. His ramblings elbowed aside other stories and softened perceptions once again. Only last week he was waving kippers around to make fatuous points about the European Union. Still at it.

No one on the left should assume a Johnson-led government would automatically deliver a Labour victory. One, because Labour will not win only through negatives. It must galvanise on positives, which themselves contain the dividing lines with the Tories. But two, because to beat Johnson it is first necessary not to underestimate him. Johnson has always fought brutally hard in his self-interest and he is not going to stop now.

It was reported last week that Johnson is gearing up the Conservative Party for a general election. “There’s a desire to get this done while Corbyn is still around,” the Times reports of one senior member of Johnson’s team. “Labour is utterly divided — Brexit is killing them. Labour is in no fit state to fight a general election.” Another member of Johnson’s team is reported to have said: “Jeremy Corbyn being opposition leader is a positive for us.”

Labour supporters will conclude from this that some in the Conservative Party learned very little from Theresa May’s disastrous miscalculation in calling a snap election. Certainly, Jeremy Corbyn’s critics and opponents have regularly fallen foul of not taking him seriously enough, very often at their direct cost.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to be sober about the challenges we will face in the coming period and — in turn — not to make the mistake our opponents have made about us: underestimation of the other side.

Johnson’s incoming administration will come to power with a precarious majority. MPs have already tied his hands by stopping any attempt to prorogue parliament. The new cabinet will have to turn its attention immediately to Brexit, which has now seen off two Tory prime ministers. Bubbling underneath are all the problems of an increasingly fragile-looking economy. The objective situation he inherits presents very clear opportunities for the broad progressive left of British society to strike hard and to speak for the majority of the country in doing so.

All of these factors may have contributed to one view currently doing the rounds in Westminster: that Johnson’s elevation to Prime Minister is a net positive for the Labour Party. One New Statesman cover story this summer reported figures from very different strands of opinion within the party who believe that “someone is running to save them: Boris Johnson.” The NS’s Stephen Bush reported the remarks of one Labour leadership ally who believes that a Johnson-led Conservative government would “put things into perspective” for disaffected Remainers. The view is not confined to supporters of Jeremy. “Jess Phillips,” Stephen reports, “the outspoken backbencher, has described a Johnson leadership as ‘a gift’ to Jeremy Corbyn.”It is absolutely right for Labour to relish any opportunity to fight the Tories in an election. That does not diminish the task of defeating the incoming PM. There is no inevitability that Johnson will defeat himself for us; or that an electoral backlash will hand power to Labour. 

If we look again at the reports last week that the Tories are preparing for an election, they may well favour an election before 2022, but they also certainly prefer a general election after Brexit has been imposed, not before. The Times reports that Johnson “has made clear that holding an election before Brexit has been delivered would be an ‘absolute folly’. Senior allies said, however, that planning was under way to go to the polls by the summer of next year.” 

Johnson’s team are reported as planning for the eventuality of being forced into an election earlier, but their preference is for something later, and there are very sound reasons from their point of view for such thinking. Including one rather big reason: the Brexit Party.

Tory MPs do not have any desire to go back to the electorate with the threat of the Brexit Party hanging over them. Hence a preference for a post-Brexit election. By removing the Brexit Party’s threat, the Tories will feel emboldened to press ahead with an election. While Farage’s party is a firing squad aiming directly at Tory MPs, it can be removed, if a hard Brexit is delivered.

Johnson will have an early ally in the US president for a hard Brexit. Donald Trump wants a hard Brexit as a means to weaken the European Union, to strengthen the USA in Europe, and to pursue his own trade deals. Trump’s political assassination of the British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, was in large part a warning sign about his impatience with Britain and May over Brexit. Nigel Farage is Trump’s principal British minion. He is considerably less likely to cause the Tory party mayhem if Trump’s ally Johnson has successfully delivered the hard Brexit each of them wants. Clearing the Brexit Party out of the way would remove a major electoral headache for Johnson.

It is not only with regard to his ruthlessness towards Brexit, the British economy or a general election that Johnson must not be underestimated. His style and brand, and his willingness to switch to any and all positions in order to protect himself and advance, will also present a change from Theresa May.

Johnson’s methods cannot be considered without recognising his long-term alliance with the political strategist Lynton Crosby. Among the many things Crosby has brought to Johnson’s campaigns and activities, he has imposed message discipline — or rather, Johnson has submitted himself to discipline in pursuit of his own self-interest. After Johnson was first selected as the Tories’ London mayoral campaign he initially ran an underwhelming campaign. As Sonia Purnell noted in her biography of Johnson:‘Veronica Wadley [then editor of the Evening Standard] who had done more than anyone to make him the Conservative candidate for mayor, publicly attacked Boris in November 2007 for being “pathetic”. In front of a crowd at the Spectator Parliamentary awards lunch, she icily declared: “You need to pull your finger out!”

One of the ways in which his 2007/08 campaign was put on a more serious footing was the introduction of Crosby. Much of Johnson’s subsequent record as a campaigner was established in this period.

Let us take the matter of debates. Johnson has been heavily criticised for refusing to participate in leadership debates. For Johnson, evasion is not new: as a mayoral candidate he was equally willing to take brick bats for not taking part in debates, in order to secure what he saw as other benefits. Once he became mayor he ducked the accountability of mayoral press conferences, once a weekly event but quickly downgraded. Any general election campaign assumptions must be based on the fact that Johnson will play hardball over formats and timings or simply refuse altogether, and he will obviously not be the first prime minister to do so. But Johnson will surely apply the same avoidance tactics to general matters of accountability outside elections.

Johnson’s campaign teams under Crosby have pursued frontrunner tactics in this regard for a long time. Rationing debates can help dictate the terms of when and if debates take place. If debates go ahead without him he is able to cement the sense that he is ahead of the rest of the pack and does not demean himself with free-for-alls — and he is able to sit back whilst his opponents inflict blows on each other. Through his refusal to debate, he sets his own agenda on his own terms, heightening interest in his personal appearances. And, of course, this all has the added advantage of minimising scope for errors.

As a debater, when he does finally appear, he goes on the offensive, speaking over his opponents to totally impose himself on the proceedings and avoid probing questions.

Johnson’s persona is that of a free-wheeling figure but he is more than willing to submit himself to campaign discipline in order to extract advantage over his rivals. Labour will have to work hard to find imaginative ways to make him accountable. And the party will have to ensure that when Johnson does refuse to debate, Labour can make him pay so heavily in the minds of the voters that it outweighs any of the benefit he believes he can amass.

Parliament provides many more opportunities to hold Johnson to account than were available in the London Assembly. The dogged scrutiny of Johnson by Assembly members was highly creditable. Nonetheless, we know that the Assembly’s position within the Greater London Authority arrangements is weak in relation to the mayor’s powers. Crucially, the opportunity of a weekly PMQs and all the other mechanisms that parliament provides — from votes to statements and urgent questions — can make it harder for him to evade his critics. It is easy to see the appeal of proroguing parliament to this particular politician. If he sticks to his established game-plan, parliament would provide one of the biggest challenges to the way he likes to govern.

As PM Johnson will not be a fool when it comes to seeking ways to weaken Labour’s position. He is quite barefaced about it. This is the man who famously composed opposing articles on Brexit before opting to go for Leave. On one occasion, in the 2012 mayoral election, his team got wind of Ken Livingstone’s forthcoming campaign slogan and bus logo and adapted them themselves — rushing out “Better Off With Boris”, transformed from “Better Off With Ken”. While that might have shown a lack of clarity and thinking on their own side, it also exemplified the pure brazenness of their method.

In the capital his team did not simply develop attack lines on the perceived weakest points for both Livingstone and Labour. They also tried to muscle in on stronger cards, in order to seek to reduce them as strengths. Thus the promise of a “new Routemaster” bus was a way to get onto terrain that was seen as a huge strong point for Livingstone, create an attack line, and insert something to say on the matter that actually sidetracked from bigger issues

.Downing Street’s new occupant will want to open up big, understandable dividing lines but he will also want to shut down any effective Labour attacks on him. Free travel for under-18s was a flagship Labour policy in London which the Tories on the London Assembly helpfully opposed and gave us a solid difference to go after. Year after year they walked into it. Yet Johnson rapidly ditched Tory opposition to the concessionary scheme so that he could was not tarred with the same brush. What he learned in London will not be forgotten — a Tory general election campaign under Johnson and Crosby will be less susceptible to a Nick Timothy-style dementia tax fiasco this time round. He will be the extreme opposite of the inflexible, leaden-footed Maybot.

It is not yet fully clear how Johnson will position himself: whether he will seek to pose as socially liberal but fiscally prudent, for example. Some of his recent announcements do not imply a great deal of fiscal prudence — but whether that is carried over into office will be interesting to see. The new Tory prime minister might well consider that his own party is a threat to his own brand. If he seeks to escape the image of his party, Labour will have to try relentlessly to tie him back to it. We know from his time as London mayor that his party was a problem for him: Labour had to seek to “Toryise” his brand wherever possible. This was distinct from calling him a “toff”, which the voters will see as name-calling and is unlikely to work. Better to lash him together with the wider Tory party, in all its awfulness, and demonstrate the extent to which they are all out of touch.

Labour is going to need to be alert to the Johnson team’s willingness to say anything, including openly stealing our clothes, and we will need to stick to clear, galvanising dividing lines that are impossible for Johnson to nullify.

There is no question that Johnson has a rich seam to be mined for attack stories and which can be used to define him very clearly away from the “buffoonery” and in more negative terms. His writings are one source of this. From inflammatory language about piccaninnies and letter boxes to very clearly homophobic terminology and wildly pro-war arguments, the new prime minister has accumulated a big dossier of negatives for Labour to pursue. To deploy these, however, we must be aware that Johnson has advanced all the way to Downing Street with many of these statements already widely reported. He has calculated that they are not doing him a great deal of damage. Of course the appalling views in his writings must be held to account. They undoubtedly harden and galvanise opposition to him in many quarters. But to some they are already “priced-in” as part of the package, and they are even appealing to many voters as an example of someone who speaks his mind.

Johnson’s provocative oeuvre is most likely to be salient when linked to wider questions of character, ability to lead and to a sense of being out of touch.

Aside from his writings, Johnson has another type of record: as an elected politician holding high office. Again, most of the negative aspects of his time as mayor and as a cabinet minister 

have been aired — although of course anyone with such a long time in public office may well have further revelations to be exposed. Johnson’s scandalous profligacy over the Garden Bridge, other hare-brained schemes such as the Thames Estuary airport, and the failings of his “new Routermaster” are all quite rightly now being revisited and should continue to be part of Labour’s armoury. They are, at the very least, a reminder that his record in London is not all his Tory supporters would have us believe.

Yet Johnson’s bigger failures as mayor are what he did not do, as opposed to what he did badly. It is in this territory that we find a sign of where he is most likely to fail the country. London, a huge metropolis, is constantly shifting and changing. It must be led or it will go backwards. It felt scratchy, dirty and hard to get around in by the time the Labour government created the mayoralty in 2000 because colossal cities of this nature require intervention. Left to the market, things started to fall behind. London needs planning ahead — ten, twenty, thirty years ahead and more. It is a treadmill that you cannot afford to get off. Thus it has been the left, not the right, that has always been the modernising force in London politics.

A requirement to intervene and plan explains why the first phase of the mayoralty was such a blizzard of activity: a massive expansion of buses, congestion charging, record police numbers and neighbourhood policing, the Olympics bid, the development of the London Overground, securing Crossrail and so on. The city had to get in front of what it needed in order to continue to be a decent place to live and work. But, as a Tory, Johnson does not particularly recognise the virtues of planning, intervention and investment. Johnson preferred showy, wild and largely undelivered new schemes, rather than ones that would ensure that the city was in good shape in the future. He did not take the long-term decisions London needed. In addition to making the wrong decisions, such as a hard Brexit, it is in this failure that Johnson’s politics contain major weaknesses and can unravel. It will be necessary to define him on that terrain early on.

Most importantly, Labour’s approach will need to separate Johnson from the public on the question of who stands more for the material interests of the overwhelming majority of people. That will be difficult given the current climate but it will be essential not to be deterred from it.

Johnson does not like being challenged with popular positions that starkly demonstrate that his rivals stand more for the material interests of the majority than he does. He was on the back foot when pressed over the issue of soaring transport fares. Indeed, he himself said that Labour’s policy platform to reduce the cost of living to Londoners in the 2012 campaign “was a very tough thing to fight against.” So it was — constant pressure on that weak point gave Johnson poll scares in which he slipped behind.

Johnson is a Tory who will always find ways to help the richest. In London he was most defensive when he found himself having to defend his own actions that cost people more — such as the rising cost of living — or which undercut his own appeal as a Tory, such as reducing the number of police officers. This also becomes toxic for him when it can be tied to the sense that he is out of touch with real people.

Labour will do best with a clear, simple, easily understandable offer to the public that contains the sharpest possible dividing lines, drawing out the truth that Labour, not Boris Johnson will ensure you and your loved ones will have a higher standard of living — and that Labour will take the long-term decisions that will benefit you; whereas Boris Johnson and the Tories are out of touch and will not act to protect your prospects and those of the country.

Underestimate him at your peril. What we may think of as his weaknesses can be strengths. His established way of working predicts future behaviour. He will obfuscate, avoid accountability, brazenly steal policies, play to the gallery and close down as many attack lines as he can. But once these characteristics are absorbed and factored in, it will be possible to defeat him.

 Simon Fletcher was chief of staff to London mayor Ken Livingstone from 2000-08 and director of Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 leadership campaign. This post originally appeared on Medium