Boris Johnson faces a tough crowd in Scotland, but might just win people over – John McLellan

By legend, the Glasgow Empire theatre was the English comic’s graveyard. The audience was notoriously short of patience and amongst the victims were Morecambe and Wise, Bob Monkhouse and Tommy Cooper.

Boris Johnson's 'stand-up' went down a storm at the Conservative party conference (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson's 'stand-up' went down a storm at the Conservative party conference (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

When Mike and Bernie Winters took to the stage, the biggest laugh of the night was when a wag shouted, “Aw naw, there’s two o’ them”.

Even though the Empire was bulldozed in 1963, its reputation and that of Glasgow audiences lived on, and with it the belief that if comedians can crack Scotland, they’ll crack it anywhere.

Maybe modern times are different; it’s not hard to imagine Michael McIntyre’s tales of Home Counties’ middle-class niggles going down like a new ship’s keel with a gritty Empire crowd, but on his last visit north 12,000 people in the Hydro apparently lapped up even his usually grating attempt at a Scottish accent.

You don’t have to go far to find Scots who think Boris Johnson is a clown, with the most recent poll last month giving him a popularity rating of minus 38, with 41 per cent strongly disapproving.

A comic turn or a calculating political operator, there was unanimity this week that Boris Johnson knows how to play his audience. Positive or negative, and with no policy to analyse, the reaction to his Conservative conference speech focused more on stagecraft than statecraft, but like him or loathe him ─ and that Redfield and Wilton poll suggests 41 per cent of Scots fall into the latter category ─ he’s impossible to ignore.

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“A second-rate comedian,” said Kevin Maguire of the Mirror. “Boris the showman is back, and what a performance he put on,” gushed the Telegraph’s Allister Heath. He was a “fun dad” said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian, “showering the kids with sweets and promises, while leaving the slog of nagging them to clean their teeth and do their homework to someone else". In the Times, former Scotsman editor Iain Martin wrote that, “as an act of pure theatre, the vaudeville routine… showed his fans once again that barnstorming Boris deserves his position at the top of the bill”.

Good or bad, no other British politician gets notices like that.

The approach is to set a tone while others like Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien do the heavy policy lifting, and the question buzzing round Scottish circles in Manchester was whether Boris the Showman should be exposed more often to the Glasgow crowd. Opinion remains as divided as during the leadership election when a majority of Scottish members backed Jeremy Hunt.

There is still a strong view amongst influential figures that however much an English audience loves Bojo’s boosterism mojo, it simply won’t work here, and gags about the Starmer Chameleon and John Bon Govi will turn off more Scots than they attract.

Maybe secret research backs that up, but until the Red Wall was swept away in the 2019 general election, there were doubts about whether a Johnsonian “cheek-by-jowler”, as he put it on Wednesday, would work in the North of England when electing a government as it had done in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Too London, too Oxbridge, too Etonian to impress in the old coalfields? In the end, the old industrial areas weren’t the problem, but the middle class, university-dominated places like Durham City.

So where are we now? As the football pundits like to say, it’s a results-based business, Gary, and we are only at half time. Judging from research by international communications strategy consultants Kekst CNC of swing voters in Blyth Valley ─ a seat which returned Labour’s Ronnie Campbell eight times ─ they are still solidly behind Boris because they understand the scale of the challenge but like his can-do attitude.

Cutting him slack just now, they still want results. A failure to deliver on things like higher wages, affordable homes and better healthcare – and their support will evaporate. Despite all the personal baggage, Boris the personality is popular.

There is an impression that he doesn’t make many forays to Scotland, but with the obvious exception of Gordon Brown that charge could be laid at all Prime Ministers going back to Alec Douglas-Home.

Yet he and his new family holidayed in Applecross last year, he visited a Glasgow testing laboratory and a Livingston vaccine factory in January, was out in the North Sea in August to visit the Moray East offshore wind farm and next month he’ll be in Glasgow for the COP26 summit.

David Cameron made quiet holiday trips to Jura, but after he came up for the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, in which the party returned only 15 MSPs, he stayed away in 2016 and the pattern was established. Mr Johnson should be here again for the next Scottish conference and, whether you are a Boris fan or not, and I voted for Jeremy Hunt, the inescapable truth is he is box office. Whether Glaswegian, Geordie or Cockney, people like celebrity.

Scotsman readers know Scotland is different because the Labour heartlands the Conservatives smashed two years ago in England were smashed here by the SNP a decade ago, but to insist his style cannot work in Scotland is to believe in an inherent difference between ordinary Scottish voters and English ones without really putting it to the test.

It used to be said that the old Northern working men’s clubs were the real proving ground for English comics and that Mr Johnson’s appeal was limited to the Henley types he used to represent. But having won over London, he won over the North and to keep him away from Scotland ensures he can never make an impact here.

It might be hard, it’s not without risk, but compared to the increasingly grim-faced, can’t-do-because-of-London First Minister who has painted herself into a legal corner at the Supreme Court, is there really much to lose?

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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