Jane Devine: Give us a straight answer, Boris

Boris Johnson talking to Eddie Mair. Picture: BBC/ PA
Boris Johnson talking to Eddie Mair. Picture: BBC/ PA
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THERE are many difficult questions in life. Why are we here? What’s the point in all this? Deep philosophical questions such as these are difficult because they cannot be answered.

So why do seemingly straightforward questions, which clearly can be answered, seem to pose so much difficulty? Questions like: “Would you like to be prime minister?”

Last week on the Andrew Marr Show, Eddie Mair, presenter of Radio 4’s PM programme took on the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The interviewee, who claimed he was expecting to talk about immigration and housing issues, was clearly taken aback by Mair’s approach, which was carefully executed to unnerve the London mayor before going in for the kill: do you have ambitions to be prime minister?

This is a question that politicians shrink from or bask in, depending on its timing and their readiness for it. Answering it directly, however, is something they rarely do.

The rule of thumb in interpreting a response goes something like this: anything other than a straight no means yes. It’s reminiscent of the Yes (Prime) Minister episode, where a fellow MP is speculating with Jim Hacker about whether or not he wants to be PM. When Hacker is asked if he is a likely candidate he replies: “I have absolutely no ambitions in that direction.” To which his colleague rightly concludes that he absolutely does.

Journalists posing this “big” question of politicians almost never manage to extrapolate a direct response never mind an actual answer. Although, last year, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, was a refreshing exception. When asked if he aspired to be prime minister he simply said: “I don’t have it in me; I don’t have what it takes.”

Boris Johnson was not so honest. He rambled on about things he wanted to do and did everything except answer the question. What did we expect? Eddie Mair obviously intended this to be the interview that exposed Johnson and was frustrated by his lack of clarity on the prime minster question, but as a journalist he has to accept that he and his colleagues are part of the reason politicians can’t answer it.

They can’t give an honest answer because the reaction will not be honest either. No matter what they say, anything other than no will give rise to a circus of media speculation which will have consequences for any future ambitions they might have, but also for their relationship with the current Prime Minister and his or her supporters. Why would they answer?

There is no doubt that Boris Johnson has his eyes on a prize (whatever that prize may be) and we would be foolish to think that he or any of his peers will answer the big question until they are ready for the consequences and can use them to their advantage.

We should know by now that we are more likely to answer the meaning of life than get a straight answer about a politician’s intentions.