Pressure on Boris Johnson ahead of ITV leaders’ debate with Jeremy Corbyn – Andrew Vine

Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson will clash in the first TV debate of the election tonight.
Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson will clash in the first TV debate of the election tonight.
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THERE’S the chance that tonight’s opening televised joust between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn won’t amount to much, generating more heat than light.

It’s to be hoped the first debate between the men doesn’t descend into a studio-based version of Prime Minister’s Questions, with yah-boo insults being exchanged, because all that will achieve is to make viewers turn off, further distancing politics from the people it is supposed to serve.

Boris Johnson looked uneasy meeting South Yorkshire flooding victims.

Boris Johnson looked uneasy meeting South Yorkshire flooding victims.

But the most fascinating aspect of it for me will be watching how Mr Johnson reacts to questioning because the Prime Minister is so edgy when he’s put on the spot.

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That’s been increasingly apparent in the few months since he took office, and its most glaring manifestation came on his visit to the flooded communities of South Yorkshire last week. He looked like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights and paralysed with fear.

He didn’t know what to say, beyond mumbling platitudes about how sorry he was and what a terrible thing had happened. Ill at ease and awkward, all his body language spoke of a man who just wanted to get the hell away.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was more at ease when he met flooding victims.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was more at ease when he met flooding victims.

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A couple of days later, he ran scared of a group of protesters outside a scheduled visit in Somerset, pulling out rather than encounter them.

And then on Friday we were back to the rabbit-in-the-headlights, this time on live television, when BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty asked how he related to ordinary people. He hadn’t a clue how to respond and resorted to his familiar fallback of inarticulate bluster.

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The contrast between Mr Johnson’s visits to the flooded areas, and those by Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, was striking. Both came across as being comfortable with the people they met, the conversations unforced, and consequently they gave the impression of being more genuinely sympathetic.

They had the easier task, not being in power so absolved of any blame for doing too little to help, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that both appeared much more in tune with the public.

Mr Johnson has travelled a long way on portraying himself as a jovial type who’s at ease with people, but his appearances suggest he’s either lost his touch or it was all an act. Even judged by the standards of the spin that has infested politics ever since Tony Blair came to power, Mr Johnson is revealing himself as an extreme example of the control freak tendency.

Unless the settings in which he appears are ruthlessly stage-managed to eliminate all possibility of the unexpected or spontaneous, the Prime Minister has a hunted, wary look about him. He’s clenched and guarded, like somebody with a guilty secret they want to keep hidden at all costs, which makes him look shifty. Only when the appearance is on his own terms, and he’s in a setting that seals him off from the possibility of interruption or being wrong-footed, do the charm and humour on which he depends so heavily emerge.

A large part of his appeal to the Conservative members who handed him the premiership was that he seemed to be the antithesis of Theresa May. Under questioning, she clammed up and went rigid which made her look defensive and robbed what she said of conviction. They thought in contrast Mr Johnson was a persuasive natural communicator, but he’s hardly less edgy than Mrs May.

It isn’t only when meeting the public that he seems unsettled. The cameras in the Commons, which have revealed so much about our politicians since television coverage was introduced 30 years ago tomorrow, catch him tense and jumpy, again in an environment he cannot control.

Doubtless he’ll have been thoroughly rehearsed for tonight’s debate, the brief likely to have aimed at coming across as sincere, statesmanlike, trustworthy and visionary.

Mr Johnson has shown precious little of any of those qualities during his career, and although he can probably run rings round Mr Corbyn as a debater, the setting might prove kinder to the Labour leader. Whatever voters think of his policies and world-view, he is patently sincere about them. He has a knack for connecting to ordinary people and their everyday lives that cannot be taught or faked.

Not so Mr Johnson. As the election campaign runs its course, his dislike of anything he can’t control becomes more apparent. That makes a debate in which he will be put on the spot potentially a lot more revealing than he would like.