Boris Johnson dodging a debate is like a gardener who refuses to use a spade

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Boris Johnson dodging a debate is like a gardener who refuses to use a spade



FOR a charismatic politician with a unique ability to entertain the public, Boris Johnson has been curiously shy during the Tory leadership contest.
Normally addicted to publicity, he has largely avoided newspaper interviews, shunned the television studios and hidden away from the radio microphones.
4 Boris hasn’t faced scrutiny and answered detailed questionsCredit: AFP or licensors
In doing so he’s mirroring the behaviour of wooden Theresa May who skipped debates for fear of being exposed as a terrible public speaker who was incapable of connecting with the public.
Boris is a much bigger, more compelling figure than May ever was, but he does himself no favours with his current stance, which smacks of aloofness and lack of accountability.
Today, he refused to participate in a set of hustings organised by the Parliamentary press lobby at Westminster.
Even more glaringly, last night he took no part in the televised leadership debate hosted by Channel 4. To emphasise his absence, the station provided an empty lectern in his place alongside the other five candidates.
Boris’s campaign team could point out that this Trappist strategy is working. After all, he is now the overwhelming favourite to become the next Conservative leader.
Boris himself justified his boycott by claiming that the Channel 4 debate only fuelled the image of destructive civil war in his party. “I think the public have had quite a lot of blue-on-blue action over the last three years,” he said.
As he’s never shied away from blue-on-blue action in the past, these are pathetic excuses which mask the real reason he’s dodging debates.
4 At last night’s debate on Channel 4, an empty lectern was placed alongside the other five candidatesCredit: PA:Press Association
People want an accountable, engaging leader
Apart from cynical political manoeuvring, it may also be that Boris is more anxious about public interrogation that his bouncy manner and verbal wit suggest.
A revealing insight into his character was provided yesterday by the journalist Andrew Gilligan who worked at London’s City Hall during Boris’s spell as Mayor.
One of Boris’s duties every six months was to hold a public meeting where he would be rigorously questioned by London voters.
As Gilligan recalled, “he was sometimes intensely nervous before these events, shutting himself in a room to gather his thoughts. His reluctance to do television debates in the current leadership contest is perhaps of a piece with this. He did them in both his Mayoral elections but not terribly well.”
Similarly, Boris last appeared on BBC Question Time no less than six years ago.
4 Boris Johnson on Question Time, alongside Carol Vorderman
Clever approach? It comes across as cowardly
By rationing his appearances so strictly, Boris not only does the British public a disservice but he also undermines his own authority.
His restrained approach might seem clever but it comes across as cowardly, particularly when he’s built a journalistic career uttering forth on everything from politics to ‘piccaninnies’ – in return for a very lucrative pay cheque.
Yet it seems that when the stakes are high and he’s liable to be held to account for his words, he’s strangely struck dumb.
It was telling that some of the loudest applause from the audience at last night’s Channel 4 debate was when the other candidates highlighted his no-show.
Any figure that aspires to be our Prime Minister should be open to tough examination. The mettle of every serious candidate has to be tested in the cauldron of media scrutiny.
Debates and interviews are part of the interview process for the top job in the country.
They are so crucial because they reveal if a politician has some of the essential skills for the post, especially the ability to communicate, to persuade and to engage.
Moreover, they put key policies in the glare of the spotlight.
In the case of Brexit, this is a vital requirement to gauge if a candidate has a realistic plan for our departure or is just peddling empty words.
Johnson risks same mistakes as May
Some traditionalists are sniffy about the growing influence of TV debates on our politics. But since the first such event during the General Election of 2010, they have become an integral part of the landscape.
Coping with them is a now a basic responsibility. A modern politician who avoids a debate is like a gardener who refuses to use a spade.
Boris is in danger of making the same mistake as Theresa May did as she sabotaged her own career.
In 2016, after the resignation of David Cameron, May was swiftly elected leader without a proper contest, so neither her party nor the public knew what an appallingly stilted performer she really was, devoid of all conviction and clarity.
But once she called the snap General Election in 2017, her woeful failings soon became apparent. She was hopeless in interviews, robotic on the platform.
But even worse, she ran away from televised debates with the opposition.
On one occasion, she even sent along the Home Secretary Amber Rudd as a substitute, even though Rudd’s father had just died.
As it happened, Rudd performed far better than May could ever have done, emphasising how unsuited May was for the premiership. Indeed, May never recovered from her disastrous campaign of 2017.
4 The televised debate took place only 48 hours after Amber Rudd’s father’s deathCredit: Getty – Pool
He must face scrutiny now – and if he’s PM
Yet if he cannot handle debates with his colleagues, how is he going to deal with the Commons bear pit that is Prime Minister’s Questions, or the hostility of 27 other EU member states during the next round of Brexit negotiations?
The best antidote to any awkwardness is not to hide away but to appear more.
He has nothing to fear.
As Boris’s own unorthodox career demonstrates, the public are very forgiving of so-called gaffes.
What they don’t forgive so easily, as May learnt, is timidity.
Boris’s supporters like to draw parallels between him Winston Churchill, who, surprisingly, found public speaking difficult and had to prepare tirelessly for every speech he made.
RICHARD TICE We must leave the grotesque temple of excess the EU has become CommentKARREN BRADY Boris Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds will get him the keys to No10 CommentTREVOR KAVANAGH All aboard for The Brexit election that only Boris can win for the Tories CommentTHE SUN SAYS BBC’s awash with cash — it’s dishonest to pretend they can’t help out over-75s CommentBO SELECTOR With 100 days to Brexit, who’ll be in BoJo’s first Cabinet…and who’ll be out?
But he never walked away from the struggle.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,” Churchill once said.
It’s time that Boris heeded his idol’s words and stepped up to the mic.
Channel 4 leave podium empty for Boris Johnson and invite Conservative candidate to join live debate

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