As British voters prepare to head to the polls for a defining general election – the third in four years – they face a difficult choice, involving two unpopular leaders.
Or as Nick Boles, a former Conservative MP, views it, an “appalling choice” between a “compulsive liar” and a “totalitarian”.
The former – in Boles’ opinion – is Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The latter is Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s as if the 2016 US presidential election, where both major candidates were deemed flawed and untrustworthy, is playing itself out again three years later, on the other side of the Atlantic.
“People are cynical and saying that they’re fed up on the doorstep,” Mary Roberts, a Labour candidate in the north Wales constituency of Ynys Mon, told supporters at a rally on Sunday. “That makes it difficult sometimes.”
Canvassers and activists in the crowd echoed that sentiment. Voters want all of this – Brexit, the election, the nonstop drumbeat of political chaos – to be over and done with.
Welcome to the 2019 general election, a pre-Christmas present few British voters seem anxious to unwrap.
Johnson’s trust issue
This is Johnson’s first chance to stand before the British voters as the nation’s prime minister. It’s an election he asked for, yet the campaign hasn’t been without its bumps in the road.
Critics have raised doubts about his trustworthiness – an important question, given that Johnson is trying to assure voters that he can get the UK out of the European Union by the end of January and then follow that up with successful negotiation for a new trade relationship.
They cite a string of broken promises or misleading statements, including on healthcare and his Brexit plan for Northern Ireland.
He has also been criticised for refusing to discuss the number of children he has, an issue that was even picked up in the US media.
“The theme running through our questions is trust,” BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil said of an interview he had hoped to conduct with Johnson.
“And why, so many times in his career in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy.”
Johnson declined an election interview on Neil’s programme – the only candidate to do so in recent elections. He also declined to appear at a climate debate, and instead was represented by a melting block of ice.
Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, hasn’t hesitated to employ his dagger.
“I’ve known Boris on and off for 25 years, and he is a likeable, entertaining personality, he said. “Would you absolutely trust him? No.”
Perhaps most damaging to Johnson in the final days of the campaign was the publication on Monday of a photograph of an ill four-year-old boy, admitted to a Leeds hospital emergency room, lying on a pile of coats because there were no available cots.
The image, which went viral on social media, has put the Conservatives on their heels, as they apologise for the child’s ordeal and defend themselves against charges that the incident was indicative of an underfunded health system.
Johnson responded with a halting interview with an ITV reporter. He initially refused to look at a photo of the child on the reporter’s phone, taking the device away and putting it in his own pocket, saying he would “study it later”.
His behaviour could reinforce the perception that the prime minister is not always well equipped to handle criticism and sometimes struggles to display empathy.
Corbyn pounced, saying the Conservatives have had “nine years in office, and whilst they now claim they are funding the NHS, they are not; they’re not even beginning to make up the shortfall it’s had over the past nine years.”