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Look away now
“Why don’t you look at it now, prime minister?” asked ITV Yorkshire’s Joe Pike, armed with that image of a four-year-old boy being treated on a hospital floor in Leeds.
After finally glancing at the picture, Boris Johnson then ludicrously pocketed the reporter’s phone as if he were confiscating a child’s irritating toy. “It’s a terrible, terrible photo...but what we are doing is supporting the NHS..,” he finally blurted out. The clip has had six million views and will get many more millions on prime time TV channels.
At last, in this tightly choreographed Tory election campaign (and even the ‘unscripted’ bits of Johnson’s speeches are carefully scripted), here was a real moment. It was a moment that told us a lot about the PM’s irritable side, his unconventional conduct and his failure to empathise properly with a lived experience of the British public.
Authenticity has been in such short supply these past few weeks, but things don’t get more authentic than a child with suspected pneumonia lying on some coats on the floor because his NHS hospital can’t find a bed. And this whole exchange mattered precisely because it bled into the narrative that you can’t trust Johnson - with the truth or with the NHS.
Many of those who know Johnson best know he rarely pays any attention to anything unless he really feels it’s important. It’s perfectly plausible that he hadn’t even seen the Daily Mirror front page, and that’s why he didn’t want to be ambushed with it.
The irony is that Johnson had already told LBC’s Nick Ferrari hours earlier that “I sympathise very much and I apologise to everybody who has had a bad experience”. But he had also told LBC “we’re a new administration” and “we want to invest massively in the NHS”. Both statements were part of the wider strategy of saying he’s only been PM for 4 months and somehow has nothing to do with the previous 10 years of Tory rule.
Being forced into saying “it’s a terrible photo” is damaging enough. But saying he is “supporting the NHS”, after years of a funding squeeze that failed to keep pace with rising pressures, is politically much more damaging if it lays bare the need for “real change”, as Jeremy Corbyn puts it.
When health secretary Matt Hancock was then ‘scrambled’ (hacks love that word) to Leeds general infirmary, he too let the cat out of the bag. He empathised better than the PM, but when put to him this was not a one-off and was rather a systemic problem across lots of A&Es, he replied “demand is rising..[we’ve] got to make sure the funds go up to match that”.
That was an admission that funds have not rising so far to match the pressures facing the NHS. The promise of jam tomorrow isn’t much comfort when you’re hungry today. Leeds general is to get a bigger children’s A&E ward, but many years too late. And when Hancock praised the “brilliant” Leeds staff, that only further exposed that it’s political decisions that have left those staff struggling.
And tonight, Channel 4 News had its own investigation revealing how cuts have left 65 out of 92 trusts with severe patient safety risk factors, ranging from staff shortages to dangerous buildings. It’s this lived experience, rather than conspiracy theories about Johnson selling off the NHS to Donald Trump, that can have much more impact on voters.
The same goes for one in five schools requiring urgent repairs, and for cuts to children’s services (as I tweeted on Saturday, another excellent regional ITV journalist Hannah Miller nailed Johnson on this). With that kind of ammunition, Labour ought to be ahead in the polls, not constantly trying to narrow the gap.
Yet of course it’s Johnson’s constant Brexit messaging that is hitting home with Labour Leave voters. Add in voter worries about Corbyn’s competence, character and values, and the party can be a tough sell, as Angela Rayner told me in our HuffPost interview (you may have read her backstory, but her political vision is just as interesting).
Today, John McDonnell predicted that this election would produce a “shock” even greater than 2017. But even he admitted that the voters were finding it tough to accept Labour’s radical proposal as realistic, claiming that was because years of austerity had the “effect of limiting people’s horizons and the potential for real change”.
In a telling Q&A he underlined the point: “Yes, Tory lies and some of their friends in the media reiterating those ad nauseum, and at the same time that feeling of ten years of austerity narrowing people’s horizons, have had some effect.”
McDonnell - whose message of giving ‘power’ back to the public has been woefully underused in this campaign - stressed that the election outcome “will be dependent on turnout” by Labour supporters on polling day. But what struck me most was his suggestion (again to ITV, they’re having a great war), that tactical voting really could make the difference.
In many ways today was Labour’s best day of the campaign for weeks. The latest ICM poll is the first in ages to put the country back in hung parliament territory. People like Rayner are winning round doubtful voters. Some in Labour even think (like in 2017) if only this campaign were to last a couple more weeks, the party would be heading for a majority of its own.
Of course, one day does not a campaign make. Don’t forget lots of voters will have already voted by post. Many of the newly-registered young voters may pile up voters in university towns and big cities where they are not needed, while ageing midlands and northern areas trend blue. And there are plenty of Tories who think they really have a great chance of seizing scores of marginal seats.
But today’s NHS ‘moment’ is a reminder that Johnson really is vulnerable. And so is his party.
Quote Of The Day
“You refuse to look at the photo. You’ve taken my phone and put it in your pocket, prime minister.”
ITV reporter Joe Pike nails the PM’s attempt at subterfuge
Monday’s Election Cheat Sheet
John McDonnell announced that his first act as chancellor on Friday would be to set a February 5 date for a Labour Budget that would immediately introduce a 5% pay rise for public sector staff and a £10/hour minimum wage for all workers over 16.
Boris Johnson said that he was “looking at ” whether the current BBC licence fee should continue in the future, within seconds of saying “I’m under pressure not to extemporise policy on the hoof.” Normally, a Labour opposition would be leaping to defend the Corporation, but its activists’ criticism of the BBC is often vociferous. And those who defend the BBC find such a defence difficult given its Twitter conduct of late.
The PM feigned ignorance over claims the Tory party had spent money on Google ads that used a fake website that pretended to be Labour’s manifesto. “I haven’t the foggiest idea,” he said when confronted by a female worker in the North East. Claims he was “interfering with the internet” was just another one of “an awful lot of distractions”, he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster accused Johnson of breaking his word over the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, after a government report leaked to the FT raised fresh doubts over whether it could be done in time for the end of 2020.
An ICM poll put the Tories on 42% but Labour on 36%, the Lib Dems on 12% and Brexit party on 3%. That’s the narrowest Conservative lead for months. However, a YouGov/ITV poll found that in Wales, the Tories had jumped to 37% just three points behind Labour.
What I’m Reading
Why Are The Polls From Different Pollsters So Different? - Stephen Fisher, Dan Snow
Brexit has had more media coverage than Labour’s core agenda – Loughborough Uni
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.