No political strategist dreams of voters saying, “Oh, bless God…don’t be mean, he’s having a hard time…”
But was that really the week that the general was unlucky, or is that wishful thinking on the part of his many critics?
This was the week that – to channel Sir Vince Cable – the Prime Minister switched from Sir Winston Churchill to Peppa Pig. Life comes at you fast. One minute you’re a killer, the next you’re lying on your butt in front of a room full of business people in Tyneside. Sounds like one of my after-dinner speeches.
It is true to say that even Johnson loyalists got goosebumps from a speech at the sight of this disaster. Someone non-political messaged me and asked, “Do you think he might be drunk?” The entire country and political spectrum were momentarily united in collective embarrassment.
Lord William Hague told Times Radio there was “a lot of clenching” and said it was “excruciating for someone who’s made a lot of speeches… you really should be able to grind your way through anything” – which, to be fair be, the prime minister is usually a master of.
After the humiliation came the giggles. They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy – in this case about 90 seconds. Our social media timelines were full of memes and brilliantly satirical clips. Although it was difficult to improve the raw material.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m very stuck in my social media echo chamber of the awful liberal left. It wasn’t until I appeared on the Jeremy Vine show Tuesday morning that I got a completely different and fascinating perspective.
The callers on the phone weren’t at all appalled that Boris Johnson hadn’t prepared for a key business audience, the sweeping mess or anything else – they were appalled at us, the panellists, for criticizing our Prime Minister.
Two callers were particularly angry. How dare we make fun of this poor, defenseless man? What cruelty to laugh at this gentle soul. While we pointed out that this was a politician who made everyone laugh his entire career and had no problem screwing over everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to Muslim women, they had none of it.
At first I thought it would be great news for the Prime Minister to have that level of support from the broader British public, until it dawned on me that they didn’t admire him at the moment – they had sympathy. A genuine sense of caring and concern. One woman even mentioned mental health. These callers did not rush to applaud his strength. They were there to defend his apparent vulnerability.
This is something no leader wants. It is far better to be loathed and strong than to worry and be weak. No political strategist dreams of the public saying, “Aww, bless him… don’t be mean, he’s having a rough time…”
That’s also a million miles from the Boris brand. His reputation is based on the fact that the public sees him as exciting, smart, charming, dangerous and yet exciting – not someone to be taken care of. As someone very close to the Prime Minister told me: “Never write Boris off, but it was a page very few of us have ever seen and it was disturbing.”
Johnson will no doubt recover, but this was the first time we’ve seen him so threatened, uncomfortable and exposed. He never sold himself by being organized, conventional or respectable – but he gave us the impression that he’s unflappable and can always fly it with style. Even people who didn’t like him bought the play.
This powerful illusion has been destroyed. Even poor Peppa Pig couldn’t save his bacon that fateful day.