Analysis: Johnson's Latest 'Tour' Is Another Carefully Managed PR Job For The Hi Vis PM

The prime minister is visiting Scotland but won't meet with Scottish Tories - or ordinary members of the public.
Boris Johnson is on a mini tour, wearing hi vis again.
Boris Johnson is on a mini tour, wearing hi vis again.
HuffPost UK

Boris Johnson is off on a “levelling up” mini-tour of the UK as he battles to survive the partygate scandal.

Dressed in a hi vis jacket, the PM used a visit to Scotland today to urge Vladimir Putin to step back from the “edge of a precipice”.

Johnson was visiting Rosyth shipyard as part of a tour aimed at sharing the message that the government is “uniting and levelling up the country”.

But the mission seemed a tad ironic given the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, would not be meeting with Johnson after calling for him to resign.

Furious over partygate, Ross told the prime minister his position is no longer tenable - a view publicly shared by Scottish Tory MSPs.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party, said Johnson’s visit should be a “farewell tour” because the PM is “deeply unpopular” north of the border.

“Even the Scottish Conservatives want Boris Johnson to go,” SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said.

Asked about the Tory infighting, Johnson insisted he was “working very hard” with Tory colleagues in Scotland - while not meeting any of them.

But given that the PM has fallen out with his own party north of the border and his visit had been derided by the SNP, why is he going on the tour?

Officially, it was to highlight the government’s “levelling up” agenda and announce a link-up between the Scottish and UK governments on two new “green freeports”.

But most Johnson observers will tell you that the trip was nothing exceptional because he is on a permanent tour.

Rarely a week goes by without the prime minister visiting a hospital or on a building site, driving a forklift truck or elbow-bumping a health worker.

This year alone, Johnson has been to an oncology centre in Kent, a tech college in Manchester, a regeneration scheme in Blackpool, Tilbury Docks in Essex, an eco park in Holyhead, a diagnostic centre in Somerset, a hospital in north London, cooked with children in his constituency and visited multiple vaccine centres in Northampton, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes.

Uniforms of choice for the carefully-crafted PR trips include a tucked-in tie or hi vis jackets and a hard hat.

There is usually one interview with a major broadcaster, and Sky’s Beth Rigby scored the most telling one a few weeks ago.

The PM hung his head when asked about having to apologise to the Queen over Downing Street parties the night before she buried her husband Prince Philip.

But what is most noticeable about these tightly-controlled trips is that, while they aim to show the PM as an ordinary bloke, they avoid opportunities for the PM to be doorstepped by the public.

Back in March 2020, Johnson was met with heckles of “traitor” when he visited a flood-hit area of Worcestershire. He faced similar abuse in November 2019 when he visited flood-hit South Yorkshire.

However, he has so far managed to avoid awkward altercations with the public over the partygate scandal.

There was no walkabout in December with victims of Storm Arwen in the North East who were left without heating and electricity for up to 12 days.

He also has not visited Northern Ireland, which has been plunged into a political crisis, although he has visited Ukraine for a press conference.

Public anger has been running high, spanning the political and social spectrum. Polls conducted in the heat of the partygate scandal showed his reputation had been ripped to shreds.

So it is little wonder that his top team have not allowed him to break out of these contrived visits.

But they cannot keep the prime minister dressed-up in hi vis and parroting the agreed lines forever.

Love him or loathe him, the prime minister is a campaign machine, whether he was running to be Mayor of London or hammering the “Get Brexit Done” message at the last election.

Tory MPs regularly talk about Johnson’s star quality, how crowds flock to him for selfies, his ability to unite voters and how they have no-one else like him in their party.

“Boris has that ability to unite people and I really don’t see anyone else in our party who can do what he’s done,” one Tory MP told HuffPost UK last week.

It is the reason many Tory MPs have not stuck their head above the parapet to hand in letters of no confidence in him.

Despite everything, he remains the Conservative Party’s best hope of electoral success, although whether or not that reputation survives the May local elections remains to be seen.

During the Bexley and Old Sidcup by-election at the height of the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal, and as partygate allegations were emerging, ministers insisted Johnson had not lost his “star quality”, despite seeing the Conservative majority slashed.

Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden claimed Johnson still had the same “traffic stopping ability” during that by-election and recounted how teenage boys had cheered for him from a bus as they saw him entering campaign HQ.

But the PM has managed to avoid any confrontations with angry members of the public. Not a Gillian Duffy in sight.

The pandemic rocked everyone’s lives and the partygate crisis posed major questions about what was happening at the centre of government while the country was locked down and businesses shuttered.

So it is hard to believe that a member of the public would not confront him over the scandal that has been a national talking point for weeks.

And for all their PR disasters over the past five months, the spinners know that, for now, it is not wise to let Johnson mingle with the public.

While the PM has spent the past few weeks trying to keep his own MPs on side, his next major test will be returning to what he did best: public campaigning.


What's Hot