Why Boris Johnson is right to dodge Andrew Neil’s bullets – John McLellan

Jeremy Corbyn came off second best in his interview with Andrew Neil. Picture: BBC/Getty
Jeremy Corbyn came off second best in his interview with Andrew Neil. Picture: BBC/Getty
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The Prime Minister has little to gain by submitting to an interview, while Jeremy Corbyn had little to lose, says John McLellan

Condemned if he does, doomed if he doesn’t; the decision about Boris Johnson’s cross-examination by Andrew Neil on the BBC net week comes down to simple percentages. How many voters will be persuaded by a good performance, how many will not vote Conservative if he refuses and how many will desert if he’s torn to bits like Jeremy Corbyn?

As a Tory footsoldier, readers will expect me to back my man, but setting aside allegiances the brutal, some might say cynical, reality is Mr Johnson has little to gain from taking the risk. It only takes one blunder to give social media a viral clip and detract from the very obvious discomfort Mr Neil inflicted on the Labour leader this week.

Team Corbyn has known for weeks they were playing catch-up and for them the percentage game was the opposite; everything to gain and nothing to lose. Even so, Labour strategists should have realised they were throwing their man to a very hungry wolf with a team of bright researchers to make sure there was a good supply of red meat. Putting him up far enough away from polling day for the damage to sink in, but near enough for voters to remember – and without a cast-iron guarantee of Mr Johnson’s appearance – was a rookie error.

Mr Johnson can claim he does not avoid Mr Neil as such – his leadership campaign interview in July went disastrously and hilariously, but not fatally, wrong when he trapped himself over trade agreement details – but with a healthy poll lead the election is for Mr Johnson to lose with a high chance of an own-goal in an unpredictable Andrew Neil encounter.

Channel 4’s leaders’ environment debate was another lose-lose, and regular viewers snorting with affronted derision at the ice sculpture which took Mr Johnson’s place were highly unlikely to be target voters. It won’t have been the talk of Hartlepool, that’s for sure and if I’d been advising Conservative communications people, I’d have said forget Ofcom complaints, don’t mention Charter reviews, and instead play up rejected stand-in Michael Gove’s recent environmental track record and say it was the others who were worried. If Mr Johnson is being projected as breezy and affable but undistracted and determined, then complaining to Ofcom doesn’t fit the narrative.

The bottom line, as Andrew Neil pointed out on Twitter, is that broadcasters have no power to compel anyone to appear and nor should they. The political impact of refusal or acceptance should be part of what in modern sport is known as “game management”.

Rugby followers know the penalty for cynical play is a yellow card – conceding a penalty deliberately might prevent a try but save the game, and after ten minutes in the sin-bin the player is back on the field. And Mr Johnson is due on the field tomorrow morning on the Andrew Marr Show.

Tourist trap

My 15 seconds of TV election exposure (fame would be putting it rather strongly) came on Tuesday morning as I teamed up with Scotsman drama critic and columnist Joyce McMillan for the paper review on Adam Boulton’s All Out Politics show on Sky .

We had a list of earnest political columns on which to base our discussion, but what caught Mr Boulton’s eye was the Evening News scoop about the closure of Jenners, now set to be converted into a luxury hotel. Another hotel? More tourists? The store has struggled for years, apartments would be expensive and snapped up by foreign investors, but with occupancy rates around 83 per cent all year a hotel is the way forward

I suspect author Alexander McCall Smith might reluctantly agree, despite joining historian Sir Tom Devine to air concerns about the growing threat of mass-tourism and commercialism in a promotional video for Edinburgh World Heritage.

Sir Tom railed against “the threat of unregulated tourism and the potential destruction of eminent sites”, and in a swipe at politicians, Mr McCall Smith said, “Edinburgh is a lived-in city and it has to be looked after. We can’t rely on government bodies and public bodies”.

Crime writer Ian Rankin added that EWH was, “making sure the fabric of the city is well maintained, but also that is a fantastic place for visitors and its inhabitants.”

The investigative skills of Inspector Rebus aren’t needed to see that his creator doesn’t actually criticise the tourism industry, which is consistent with a Times article two years ago in which he wrote that Edinburgh’s four million visitors were “largely a success story”.

“Other cities would give at least a portion of their ‘soul’ to be able to replicate. Edinburgh is not a museum exhibit, but a living, breathing contemporary city, its present every bit as vibrant as its past,” he wrote, adding, “Edinburgh will never be as crowded as Venice, because it doesn’t share that city’s infrastructure.”

That’s not how his latest contribution is being interpreted and in a swipe back, the city council’s SNP leader Adam McVey said, “It’s just not helpful to have tangents throwing the conversation and actually giving people an impression that these issues… are not being actively considered, because they are.”

There is some truth in that, but neither is Mr McCall Smith entirely wrong because Cllr McVey’s administration’s decision to dismantle Marketing Edinburgh will reduce its influence over the industry. A public consultation about Edinburgh’s tourism strategy is now under way, as if anyone will notice between the election and preparing for Christmas, but they are being asked to comment on a wish-list of things a strategy should deliver, not a strategy in itself.

Steve can still Hackett

At the Usher Hall on Monday there weren’t many concert-goers still paying for a bus pass, as old Proggies gathered to worship at the feet of ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, only the 40 years after he left the band which made his name.

Rows of white and bald heads nodded along enthusiastically (Stand up? With these knees?) to the entire Selling England by the Pound album recorded 46 years ago, and judging by the number of 60-something men on their own, there must be a lot of other halves who shout “Alexa, off,” when the old favourites get an airing.

Still, for all you rock fans who like your lyrics TS Eliot-style, Cinema Show stands the test of time. Which means for most of the population it’s a bombastic racket. Like Prog was meant to be.