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Boris Johnson’s Media Blunder, on Health Care, Is Very Ill-Timed

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Downing Street in London, England, September 25, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
With two days to go before the election, the Tories can’t afford any more missteps.

The near sacramental reverence that Brits show their National Health Service is especially pronounced during election season. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson know this and are trying to reassure voters that their plan for the NHS would both safeguard its principles and bring about its much-needed improvement.

During the prime ministerial BBC debate, Corbyn repeatedly accused Johnson of intending to sell off parts of the NHS in a trade deal with the U.S. Johnson has denied this, as has the White House. Johnson’s campaign strategy has been to pay homage to the NHS (offering increased spending to pay for more hospitals and staff) while focusing on his main message: getting Brexit done. However, he has had a very difficult past few days in that regard.

Johnson’s conservative manifesto offers 50,000 extra nurses; 50 million extra primary-care doctors’ appointments; $45 billion extra funding per year for the NHS; cross-party cooperation to solve the welfare and social-services crisis; 40 new hospitals; and free parking for some NHS workers and patients.

But actions speak louder than words.

In a cringeworthy exchange with an ITV reporter, an exhausted-looking Johnson refused to look at a picture of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia. Holding up his phone, with the photo of the boy, the reporter claimed that the child had been forced to sleep on a pile of coats at an NHS hospital. As the reporter continued asking him to look at the photo, Johnson took the reporter’s phone and temporarily put it in his own pocket while continuing to hammer home his scripted message about the NHS.

On reflection, Johnson may realize that a better response probably would have been to look at the photo, express sympathy, tell the reporter that he would have staff follow up with the child and the hospital in question, and then move on to his message. His awkward refusal, mumbling condolences, and phone-snatching have, inevitably, been used against him by critics.

A video of the episode has gone viral on social media (with more than 10 million views). It has been plastered all over the tabloid press and made international news headlines as well. This was an episode that Downing Street could really have done without two days before the election on which the future of Brexit and the country hangs. In response, Johnson rolled out a damage-control mission, sending Matt Hancock, the health minister, to visit the hospital, where he was accosted by Labour supporters. The media initially reported that Hancock had been assaulted, though it later became clear that he had merely walked into the arm of a gesticulating man.

Fortunately for Johnson, Labour’s shadow health minister, Jonathan Ashworth, has also attracted his party some unwanted attention and caused himself an (arguably) greater embarrassment. In a recorded phone conversation with a conservative friend, Ashworth expressed his belief that Corbyn could not win the election. He described Corbyn’s chances as “abysmal” and suggested that he would be a threat to national security. Ashworth has since expressed his disappointment that his words were recorded, shrugging it off as “banter” between friends.

But if Corbyn’s own health minister does not have faith in him, why should the electorate?

Only time can tell how significant these last-minute blunders will be for each side. At the moment the Conservatives have a seven-point lead. However, there’s still time for things to go horribly wrong and, at the very least, bring back another hung Parliament and years more of political chaos.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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