“I’m told we’re allowed six questions from representatives of the media. That’s a huge number!” Boris Johnson boomed at the close of his speech launching his Tory leadership campaign.
His words were revealing. He had been “told” by his media minders that six questions were enough. “Huge number” was a little joke at the expense of his fellow journalists in his audience. It is a very small number – a far cry from the days when candidates in leadership or general elections would take questions for more than an hour until the last reporter holding up an aching arm up had been called.
I have been in the pack since Margaret Thatcher won her 1983 landslide. Politicians then accepted such questioning as a healthy part of our democracy. By restricting the number of questions, however, Johnson was able to dodge detailed probing of whether he had used cocaine. He was not asked about his controversial plan to hand tax cuts to the richest people. He has faced similar questions from Tory MPs at hustings meetings, but for those the media is not allowed in.
Boris has not undertaken a broadcast interview since 12 March. When he finally subjects himself to one, John Humphrys or Andrew Marr will be able to interrupt him, or ask six questions about cocaine or tax in a row until he is finally pressured into giving an answer.
Johnson’s “submarine” campaign, in which he only surfaces briefly, is clearly working, as his commanding lead in the first ballot among Tory MPs yesterday showed. But he is rightly getting flak for hiding in his bunker from rival candidates and the media.
Johnson is expected to join a televised BBC debate for the candidates next Tuesday. But he has not yet committed to appear in a Channel 4 debate on Sunday. He should take part. The audition to be our next prime minister is too important to be conducted behind closed Tory doors.