LONDON — Known as a charismatic and energetic campaigner who is happy to mingle, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was thought to be the Conservative Party’s greatest asset. With the simple slogan of “Get Brexit done,” many analysts have predicted he will be staying at No. 10 Downing Street into 2020.
But it has not turned out to be plain sailing for Johnson ahead of the national election on Dec. 12.
A recent trip to crisis-hit communities in the north of England, where severe flooding submerged houses and cut off vast swathes of towns and roads, gave Johnson a large dose of reality as locals were caught excoriating him.
In Doncaster, South Yorkshire — long a bastion of the opposition Labour Party — Johnson approached one woman busy clearing up flood damage to ask how she was doing.
“I’m alright, thank you, but I’m not very happy about talking to you,” she said Nov. 13, holding a wheelbarrow as the broadcast cameras rolled. “You’ve not helped us … I don’t know what you’re for today.” The unnamed woman’s withering response was filmed by broadcast news cameras and widely shared on social media.
The government has been widely criticized in flood-hit communities for a slow response. Some families claim they received no assistance or even any communication for 48 hours as their homes and businesses were ruined. The U.K. Environment Agency estimates that more than 800 properties have been flooded but media reports suggest the real figure could be double this.
Even more awkwardly that day, the prime minister was shunned at a local community center nearby where flooded families were sheltering.
After refusing to shake his hand, one woman said: “Why has it taken you so long, five days Boris, to come and see us?”
“The people who were walking in here, Boris, you didn’t see them — little girls from Fishlake with no shoes on their feet, a 78-year-old lady, Boris,” the woman, who didn’t give her name to the rolling TV cameras, said as she summed up the local mood.
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The Conservative Party has now been in power either governing alone or as part of a coalition for almost 10 years. The early part of their reign focused on reducing the United Kingdom’s public debt through punishing public service cuts and measures to boost the economy and the housing market.
Now, Johnson has made getting Brexit done his number-one priority, amid various populist public spending promises on health care that reverse the party’s previous approach.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London, said while Johnson may seem gregarious and open, he often doesn’t connect with people as well as might be expected.
“He’s quite good when he doesn’t have to come into very close contact with ordinary people, when he gets to charm a few people and then he’s off,” Bale said. “The moment it gets interactive and edgy, then he’s in big trouble. But it doesn’t seem to have done any damage to the Conservatives in the polling.”
However, Bale added, the Conservative Party’s poll ratings are currently well ahead of Labour, partly because of the relatively low standing of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
“It’s all relative — they are facing one of the weakest oppositions and opposition leaders that we’ve seen. So, there isn’t a continual contrast between a fantastically popular opposition leader and Boris Johnson, he’s got no real competition,” he said.
“A lot of bad behavior is priced in as far as the voters are concerned with Boris Johnson,” Bale said. “He shares that Teflon quality with Donald Trump.”
An aggregate of voting intention polls from the BBC puts the Conservatives in a comfortable lead at 40 percent, with Labour trailing at 29 percent, and the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats a distant third with 15 percent.
The poll numbers betray what has been a rocky few months for Johnson, who’s been hit by a number of scandals that in other circumstances may have ended the career of a prime minister.
An investigation is underway into how and why businesses owned by an American technology entrepreneur, Jennifer Acuri, then based in London, received a £11,500 grant while Johnson was mayor of London, from a promotional firm linked to his office.
Acuri claims the pair had a close personal relationship, which was not declared in Johnson’s list of official interests. Johnson has maintained there was “no interest to declare.”
In June, police were called to the home of Carrie Symonds, where Johnson was staying, after reports from neighbors of a loud argument.
And that’s not to mention Johnson’s unprecedented run of 12 vote losses in the House of Commons, becoming in the process the first prime minister to lose his first vote in Parliament since 1894.
So, recent campaigning has been a far cry from Johnson’s image as a light-hearted comedian, who famously got stuck on a zipline while waving Union Jacks during the 2012 London Olympics (allegedly after lying about his weight). Johnson later explained, “It turned out I was the Yuri Gagarin of the zipwire. I was testing it.”
Not everyone is amused by his antics. Chris Patten, former chairman of the Conservative Party and the last British governor of Hong Kong, said in August that party members had “chosen a mendacious chancer. It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics.”
The test for Johnson, who is fighting his first election as prime minister in the most fractious and divided political period of modern times, is how he acts when the laughter stops.
“It’s about caring and showing his concern and empathy for the predicament the flood-hit victims had,” according to Feisal Ali, a media trainer with the PR agency Media Zoo.
“If you’ve lost everything, the last thing people want to hear is what you’re going to do tomorrow. At that moment, they want to be listened to and heard.”
Patrick Smith is a London-based editor and reporter from NBC News Digital.