The best one can say about Boris Johnson’s visit to flood-stricken South Yorkshire is – unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg – he stopped short of suggesting that, had he lived in Fishlake, he’d have had the common sense to stop his house filling up with water.
Everything else about his trip was a disaster. Though Doncaster is prime Leave land, he stayed away too long, then shuffled through surrounding towns and villages, antagonising all and sundry with his inability to do human.
Earlier, in the Peak District, he revealed himself as a man so far from being “of the people”, he had never learned to use a mop; in Fishlake, as a man unable to fathom a life so precarious a few days’ heavy rain could throw it into turmoil.
The Prime Minister’s “call me Boris” bonhomie may have a certain appeal to flesh-pressers in the city, but it takes more than messy hair and a wry smile to impress the people of sodden Stainforth.
Never has a first name been deployed to such savage effect. Over coffee in a community centre, and out in the streets, residents used it again and again, not as an expression of chumminess, but to communicate just how little respect they had for his power and his position. “You took your time, Boris”, “Where have you been, Boris?” “You said this wasn’t an emergency, Boris?” they chorused, with a lack of deference born of their northern roots and five days of being forced to carry out their own relief operation.
Unlike so many of his more compliant questioners, they refused to let him off the hook. “Is that another lie, Boris?” one asked about his belated offer of a £500 recovery grant.
In the face of such intractability, the Prime Minister didn’t know what to do with himself. He could have apologised: for the government’s failure to pay out the flood alleviation money promised in the wake of the 2015 floods, to call in the troops hours after the River Don burst its banks and to declare a national emergency (as the Italian Prime Minister has done for Venice). But “sorry” is not a word that slips easily from Johnson’s lips; so instead he mumbled ineffectual offers of belated help, his words trailing off into nothingness as the objects of his faux concern “motored” on with their clean-up efforts.
This response was both personally and politically misjudged. Fishlake – the worst affected town – is situated in Doncaster North, while many other hard-hit areas lie in Don Valley. Both constituencies are Leave heartlands represented by Labour Remainers (Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint respectively). Miliband’s majority is 14,024, but Flint’s is just 5,169, with the 2107 snap election seeing a 16.4 per cent swing towards the Conservatives, so Don Valley should be a Tory target.
Jeremy Corbyn understood the importance of showing the same concern about the floods as he would if they were happening in the south. He and Miliband swooped in like a mismatched detective duo from some Nordic Noir series, spawning a hundred memes, but showing empathy with devastated home-owners. Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson also capitalised, promising a £5bn fund to improve flood defences across the UK.
Surely Johnson’s insouciance will have an impact on his support in the north. After all, it gives the lie to Brexit. If the Leave vote was kindled by a belief that working-class areas were being neglected by a “cosmopolitan elite”, then how must it feel to be treated in such an offhand fashion by the architect of the whole project. Especially when you realise you could have benefitted from hundreds of millions of pounds from the EU Solidarity Fund, set up to help in the wake of natural disasters.
Of course, Johnson doesn’t have to travel north to come across as shallow. Last week he conducted an entire election broadcast in the style of a local radio morning show presenter, answering questions such as How Do You Start Your Day? with gratuitous details about his dog’s bowel movements and launching into a Trump-lite tribute to his own magnificence.
“We have a great Brexit deal. The best Brexit deal. Nobody said we could do it, but we did.” And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Asked by Naga Munchetty what makes him relatable, he gave an answer so incoherent it defies transcription.
Indeed, every interview leaves one wondering how so much money could be squandered on a private education which has left him incapable of basic social interaction and speaking in sentences.
Given Johnson’s propensity for self-sabotage, it’s surprising anyone else is bothered about taking part in the pre-election TV debates. Why not just hand him the floor and let him drown in his own inarticulacy?
But, of course, that’s not how it works. Other party leaders want to set out their own stalls as well as demolish their rivals’. And they should have that right.
As previously, however, the question of who will be allowed to take part is proving contentious.
ITV is planning a head-to-head between Johnson and Corbyn on Tuesday (though Swinson and Sturgeon are taking legal action over their exclusion). Sky TV has invited Johnson, Corbyn and Swinson, but not Sturgeon, while the BBC plans one debate involving multiple leaders followed by a Corbyn/Johnson head-to-head on 6 December.
None of this is logical. The argument that this election is a two-horse race between Johnson and Corbyn no longer holds hold water, particularly in Scotland, where the Conservatives are not the first party nor Labour the second.
Support for the Lib Dems has been growing across the UK, so Swinson deserves to be heard. But, even after its 2017 disappointment, the SNP holds 35 out of Scottish 59 seats and almost three times more seats nationally than the Lib Dems. A debate without Nicola Sturgeon makes no sense at all.
Moreover, 48 per cent of UK voters and 62 per cent of Scottish voters opposed Brexit. If the two parties which have consistently backed Remain – the SNP and the Liberal Democrats – are denied a place in the debate, then who is representing those people?
For most of the past decade, no single party has had a working majority in Westminster. After the 2010 election, protracted negotiations resulted in a Tory- Lib Dem coalition; in 2017, Theresa May came to a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP.
There is every chance this situation is about to repeat itself. The electorate should be given a chance to hear from those who would be kingmakers, as well as those who would be king. Finally, there’s the question of the Greens. With climate change such a pressing issue, aren’t they an important figures too?
As the number of elections increases, the wrangling over who has the right to be represented is becoming tedious. Ofcom says broadcasters can focus on those parties with the potential to form a government, but those rules were made for simpler times and ought to be updated. Satisfying though it might be to sit back and watch Johnson flaunt his own incompetence, we need fairer, more democratic formats better suited to our changing political landscape.