With the finishing line of Britain’s Brexit election in sight on Thursday, Boris Johnson’s mouth had more or less avoided the kind of headline-making gaffes that have partly defined his political career — until four-year-old Jack came along.
To start the week, a photograph of the little boy lying on the floor of a hospital in Leeds waiting to be treated for pneumonia was splashed across the front page of the Daily Mirror. The image instantly became a potent symbol of a health-care system in decay.
But instead of offering a compassionate response, the Conservative leader fumbled during a scrum, doing his best to avoid addressing the issue directly.
He looked the other way, then offered an evasive answer before grabbing a reporter’s phone and putting it in his pocket so he wouldn’t have to look at Jack’s photo.
“He doesn’t care,” Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said later. “It’s an example of what’s happening in our NHS [National Health Service].
Headline in the Daily Mirror about a four-year-old boy treated on the floor of a hospital in Leeds. Johnson has avoided confronting criticism about the state of the country’s public health care system. (Daily Mirror)
Whether that particular moment will haunt Johnson on voting day remains to be seen. What may be more notable is how rare such moments have been for Johnson on the campaign trail.
Johnson’s entire career has been punctuated by them.
He has used derogatory slurs to refer to gay people and black people, and notoriously likened the appearance of burka-wearing women to British mailboxes.
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His time as Britain’s foreign minister was widely seen as a failure, in large part because of impromptu remarks about a British-Iranian woman being held in Iran on charges of espionage.
His false suggestion that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching journalism” in Iran — and wasn’t simply a tourist — undercut efforts to free her and she remains in jail to this day.
During this election, however, there have been few big blunders. And, perhaps as a result, polls suggest Johnson is heading into Thursday’s vote with a shot at winning the majority he’d need to lead the U.K. out of the European Union his way.
A photo from 1984 featuring the Oxford Union, with Neil Sherlock, front centre, and Boris Johnson, top right. (Neil Sherlock)
“His minders have sought to try to ensure he doesn’t make lots of mistakes,” said Neil Sherlock, a business consultant and political adviser who has known Johnson since their years together in student politics at Oxford University.
“They want him out there, doing things, but not being questioned too closely.”
Sherlock, who now campaigns for Britain’s Liberal Democrats, actually went head to head with Johnson in 1984 for the job of president of the Oxford Union debating society — and won.
For three decades, he’s watched closely as his old foe manoeuvred from a career in journalism to politics, first as an MP in the House of Commons, then mayor of London, cabinet minister and now prime minister.
“I don’t think he’s particularly changed from the sort of person he was when I first knew him,” Sherlock told CBC News in an interview.
“He still really focuses on … being a performer, using rhetoric and jokes to deflect. And pauses — where he sort of plays with his hair.
“People either love him or hate him.”
WATCH | Old Oxford classmate recounts what Boris Johnson was like as student politician:
Former Oxford schoolmate says Boris Johnson has not changed
16 hours ago 1:24
Neil Sherlock ran against Boris Johnson for student union president at Oxford in the 1980s. Years later, he says Johnson is still the same politician but on a bigger stage. 1:24
An opinion piece in The Times this past weekend put the dual narrative of Britain’s relationship with Johnson rather more colourfully:
“They know he’s a scoundrel, know he’s a cheat, know he’s a selfish careerist … But something about his rascality appeals.”
The writer, former Conservative MP Matthew Parris, then added:
“Untruth comes as effortlessly to him as breathing.”
Johnson’s flip-flopping has included reversals on everything from Brexit to building a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Just days ago, the head of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which had supported the Conservatives in government, accused Johnson of “betrayal” for reversing his position on a customs arrangement for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
British Conservative candidate David Burrowes, right, with Sajid Javid, chancellor of the Exchequer, campaigning Tuesday in Enfield. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)
For Neil Sherlock, the quality in Johnson that overpowered all others back in Oxford — and still does today — is his sense of entitlement and ambition.
“The key thing was holding the job. The key thing for him, probably from Day 1 coming to Oxford, was to be president of the Oxford Union. And I think from Day 1 of being an elected politician he wanted to be prime minister.”
“So it’s a lot more about the job than perhaps a very detailed view of how he’s going to do the job.”
This election, Johnson’s campaign can probably be reduced to a single sound bite: “Get Brexit done.”
WATCH | ‘Let’s get this done’: A look at Boris Johnson’s Brexit messaging throughout campaign:
U.K. Conservatives focus campaign on Brexit
1 day ago 2:21 Turn captions on
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have made “get Brexit done” a campaign focus. The National looks at the tactic and whether it will work. 2:21
To literally drive home the point, one of his final electioneering stunts was to drive a backhoe with that phrase fixed on the shovel through a faux brick wall painted with the words: “Gridlock.”
Johnson assumed the Conservative leadership, and with it the role of prime minister, last summer, promising to take Britain out of the European Union by mid-October. But time and again, he lost key votes in Parliament after opposition parties formed a united front against both his timetable and the threat of leaving the EU without a deal setting out the terms of separation.
Labour, of course, argues the Tory platform won’t bring finality to anything, and that years of negotiations and uncertainty will surely follow as new trade deals are negotiated with Britain’s partners.
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Still, the unanimity of opinion polls that put Johnson out in front of the race suggest the “get it done” campaign has helped firm up his position.
CBC News visited the north London riding of Enfield Southgate, which voted “Remain” in the 2016 referendum, but where Brexit fatigue could be giving Conservative candidate David Burrowes a chance.