The Five Ugly Moments That Define Johnson and Corbyn

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At stake in this U.K. election is Brexit in all its horrible complexity. Then there’s the question of how big a role the state should play in British people’s lives and the nation’s economy. Together, these will place a much heavier burden than usual on the next prime minister. Yet if this election has been hard to predict, it’s partly because voters see the main contenders for No. 10 Downing Street as deeply flawed figures, each in their own way.

In weeks of staged speeches, stiff debates and pre-cooked photo ops, the campaign also contained plenty of unscripted moments. They were episodes that resonated with voters on an emotional level. Mainly, they seemed to confirm the worst fears that Boris Johnson is heartless and untrustworthy, and Jeremy Corbyn is toxic and out of touch. I’ve picked out five that were particularly revealing.

The hospital photo. This is likely to be the enduring image of the campaign if Johnson is denied a parliamentary majority or if it’s smaller than expected.

On Sunday, the Yorkshire Evening Post published a story about a 4-year-old boy lying sick on the floor of an overcrowded hospital in Leeds. When ITV reporter Joe Pike tried to show Johnson the photo on his phone, he repeatedly refused to look at it and instead blustered through with his talking points.

It reminded many of the public awkwardness of Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, but she never would have done what Johnson did next: He grabbed Pike’s mobile phone. Only after Pike mentioned on camera that his phone was in the prime minister’s coat pocket did Johnson sheepishly withdraw it, glance at the photo and stammer through an apology to the family before returning to his theme.  

Campaigns are long and tiring; nerves fray and the best politicians have bad moments. But Johnson could hardly have picked a more fitting way to demonstrate the lack of empathy of which he’s often accused, or remind many that there’s something of the bully about him.

The terrorist attack. Such moments of trauma demand both firmness and humanity from a leader. Boris Johnson’s quickness to pin the London Bridge attacker Usman Khan’s release from prison on a Labour government policy started an unseemly blame game that reduced complex issues into sordid campaign soundbites. Johnson even seemed to criticize the very prisoner rehabilitation program that Jack Merritt, one of the young victims, gave his life for that day.

Normally, the Tories benefit from a focus on security. But Jack’s father, Dave Merritt, said his son would have been livid at the way his death was “being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything to fight against.” Johnson never called the family to offer his condolences, a simple but important gesture. Dave Meritt’s dignified and forceful interventions, including a TV interview, will have struck many as a reminder that for Johnson, everything is political.

Not all of the campaign’s unscripted moments broke against Johnson. Three others did perhaps terminal damage to Jeremy Corbyn’s hopes.

The leaked conversation. Labour Health Secretary Jon Ashworth was often heard challenging the Tories on health care and pushing his party’s key campaign message that only Labour could be relied upon to adequately support the National Health Service. But in a leaked phone call with a Tory activist friend, Ashworth suggested it was a mistake to have made Corbyn party leader. Worse, he echoed the fears of many that Corbyn, whose anti-West foreign policy views are highly unconventional, would be a danger in office.

Ashworth later said the leaks made him “look like a right plonker” (a Britishism for ineptitude), and insisted he was merely trying to misdirect his friend and make him feel complacent. It was damaging to Corbyn, nonetheless.

The Labour vote is, as Number Cruncher Politics’ Matt Singh wrote Wednesday, “softer” than the Conservative one. If Corbyn’s own inner circle have doubts about his fitness for office, then how much less sure of their choice are many voters? The leak also took the focus away from Labour’s health care message at precisely the wrong time, though Johnson’s foot-in-mouth (or phone-in-pocket) NHS incident helped cushion the impact.

The Rabbi. When the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis took the almost unheard of step of wading into an election campaign with a biting article in the Times, it was impossible not to notice. Anti-Semitism, he lamented, had become an institutional problem within the Labour Party and was “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud — of dignity and respect for all people.” This was a cri de coeur from a top religious leader and an appeal to all decent people to take into account — indeed, be guided by — Corbyn’s lamentable record on anti-Semitism when they vote. It may have lost Corbyn the support of many moderate Remainers who would have struggled to back his party after that.

The Andrew Neil interview. Nobody expects to emerge unscathed from a sit-down with the best interviewer in British television, a forensic take-down artist. But Corbyn didn’t just struggle in his 30-minute interview with Neil; he withered. It wasn’t just the long segment on anti-Semitism, in which Corbyn inexplicably refused multiple times to apologize for his party’s behavior. On every subject, Corbyn struggled to answer the questions and defend his policies. He was particularly weak in explaining how he would pay for Labour’s radical spending plans without destroying the country’s tax base. (Although at least Corbyn put himself through the ordeal; Johnson refused the Neil offer even though all the other party leaders were grilled by him).

Parties are paramount in U.K. politics, of course; this isn’t a presidential election. But leaders matter. They set the economic and foreign policy agenda, and the tone of public discourse. They represent the country on the world stage and embody it for international investors. Ideally, they should have integrity and competence, be likable and trustworthy. 

With Johnson, voters at least have the knowledge that a political chameleon changes. Corbyn’s dogmatism, by contrast, defines him. Spare a moment for British voters on Thursday. This is an unhappy choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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