You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. That was the formula of legendary New York governor Mario Cuomo and it served him pretty well over three successive terms in office. But it’s not quite right. Not these days.
What Boris Johnson appears to understand and Keir Starmer does not is that a key factor is whether you know how to campaign in pictures.
We are a long way from an election campaign, but the natural Johnsonian flair for a compelling photograph is already being revealed as a massive advantage for him when compared to the dull visual output of the opposition leader.
Becoming the leader most associated with the massive popular success of the England football team should have been a home banker for Starmer, a lifelong football fan and an Arsenal season ticket-holder (those two facts not necessarily amounting to the same thing, by the way).
By contrast, Johnson knows almost nothing about football and does not profess to either. The only footage of him actually playing the game involves him cluelessly body-checking a shocked German opponent in a charity match many moons ago. Bull-in-a-china-shop Boris.
And yet compare the pictorial output of the two men through the current tournament. Exhibit one is a photograph of Boris Johnson reacting to the spectacle of Harry Kane scoring against Germany on a giant TV in a marquee in the Downing Street back garden.
Boris Johnson celebrates Harry Kane’s goal
Johnson is facing the screen with his arms outstretched and joy on his face, mirroring the pose and the countenance of the celebrating Kane who is running towards the camera. ‘We are both captains of the national team and are sharing this triumph’ is the subliminal message here.
Exhibit two is a photograph of the PM’s back resplendent in an England shirt with ‘Boris 10’ screen-printed on it. He is holding his arms aloft in triumph in the manner of a goal-scorer taunting opposing fans by showing off his name and number to them.
Exhibit three is a long shot of Johnson in the royal box at Wembley. Surrounded by sleek and besuited fellow VIPs he stands out a mile, not just because of his tousled blond hair and broad frame, but also by virtue of wearing that white England shirt over his work clothes, a human honey monster.
This time the message communicated to fans is: ‘I have to be among them, but really I am one of you.’
Boris and Carrie at Wembley for England’s semi-final win over Denmark
Now look at Starmer’s efforts. There’s an utterly forgettable shot of him in smart casual garb with a surgical mask over his face during an early tournament match at Wembley.
Another features him sitting in a pub intently watching the match against Ukraine with a pained expression on his face. He is wearing a tasteful and well-ironed England t-shirt and a half-drunk pint of lager is also in the shot. But it all just looks bang average.
So does a side-on photo, taken in another pub, of him celebrating England scoring against Denmark. This time he is in a conventional white work shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Keith from accounts.
Starmer cheers on England in a pub
Such is the injustice of political life that it is Starmer who has faced most public ire for allegedly faking his interest in the tournament, despite him reminding us that he actually attended England matches as far back as Euro 96.
It all recalls the nightmare the Labour leader had in April when he was ejected from a pub in Bath by the irate landlord who chose to blame him for the impact of lockdowns on his business.
Johnson, the real architect and implementer of lockdowns, was meanwhile on the same day pictured happily chatting up two ladies in the beer garden of another pub – and they looked delighted to be in his company.
Every shot of the PM is compelling and worthy of consideration for a newspaper front page or TV news bulletin. Every shot of the Labour leader isn’t.
How does someone as apparently disorganised as Johnson succeed when someone as conscientious and thoroughly prepared as Starmer fails? The truth is that Johnson must think far more carefully about these things than he appears to.
There is a low cunning behind his buffoonery and expressiveness. Like many top celebrities he has the knack of thinking in pictures. A career spent poring over densely argued legal documents has clearly not equipped his opponent to do the same.
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