Boris Johnson Has a Bad Day as Health Moves to Center of U.K. Election

Robert Hutton

(Bloomberg) -- It was the kind of moment Boris Johnson has spent the entire U.K. election campaign trying to avoid. Confronted with a picture of a sick 4-year-old forced to sleep on the floor of a British hospital because of a shortage of beds, the prime minister looked away and tried to change the subject.

As the reporter, on camera, continued to try to show Johnson the picture on his phone, the prime minister refused to look, then took the device off him, stuck it in his own pocket, and tried to plow on with his prepared lines. Only when the reporter pointed this out did the prime minister finally look at the picture.

Johnson’s strategy in this campaign is to try to persuade voters who have traditionally backed the Labour Party that they ought to vote for his Conservatives. The fear has always been that something would happen that would remind them why they hadn’t voted Conservative in the past. The prime minister’s refusal to look at the picture might be that something.

It supports the opposition Labour Party’s core message that the Conservatives don’t care about the National Health Service and its users, and that a decade of spending constraints have left health and education in crisis.

Johnson on Defensive Over Boy on NHS Hospital Floor: U.K. Votes

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made the point in a speech in Bristol, South West England. “A child with pneumonia, on the floor of a hospital in modern Britain,” he said, holding up a newspaper with the picture of the child on the front page. “That is a disgrace. We need to invest in our public services and end austerity.”

The Conservatives dispatched Health Secretary Matt Hancock to the hospital in question in Leeds, Northern England, but then made matters worse by briefing journalists that a Labour supporter had assaulted Hancock’s aide, before video of the incident showed this to be untrue.

There are just two days left until people start voting, and every poll has given Johnson’s Conservatives a clear lead. His simple message, that with a parliamentary majority he can get Brexit over the line, seems to have been cutting through.

But the Tories were burned in 2017, thinking they were heading for a majority before discovering that Labour had done unexpectedly well at holding onto its voters. The video of Johnson refusing to look at the picture of the sick child had been viewed more than 4 million times by Monday evening. If they needed more reasons to be nervous, an ICM Ltd poll showed Labour creeping to the point where a hung Parliament becomes a possibility.

U.K. Conservatives at 42%, Labour at 36%: ICM/Reuters Poll

The Conservatives have tried to keep potentially troubling spokesmen away from the cameras in this campaign. Jacob Rees-Mogg has disappeared completely after suggesting that victims of a 2017 blaze in an apartment block should have known better than to follow firefighters’ advice not to try to flee. And they have tried to keep Johnson himself away from interviews where he can be pushed on detail.

Key Election Task for U.K. Tories: Tame Boris Johnson

But it can only take one slip to derail a campaign.

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