Sixteen long years ago, the 2006 Tory Congress really got a taste of Boris Johnson’s extraordinary media traction for the first time.
In what was jokingly dubbed the ‘Bournemouth Riot’, the then shadow education spokesman attracted a huge crush of TV cameras and reporters after attacking Jamie Oliver’s crusade to make school lunches healthier.
Speaking at a gathering on the sidelines, Johnson had praised parents who were defying the healthy eating movements by delivering fast food to students at a Rotherham school. “Why wouldn’t they slide the pies through the railing?” he defined. “If I were in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like.”
Given that David Cameron himself had backed the prominent leader’s campaign just days earlier, the clash with his party leader was rare news at a boring conference. In true Johnson fashion (after trying to hide in the Tory party press office and being pelted with marshalls by reporters desperate for a new quote), he tried to retract his remarks, saying Oliver was “a national saint”.
But the then-Henley MP couldn’t help but ruffle about his libertarian concerns. He complained that the words “Fat” and “Fatso” were “sprayed out of the English language” and on “17-stone plus” he was “proud to be fat”. Since his main aim was a ‘nanny government’ of the Labor government, his overall message seemed to be (to borrow a campaign phrase from the 1970s): fat is a Leninist issue.
Fast forward to today and Johnson faces new controversy over his stance on fighting obesity. Crucially, the government’s new national diet strategy misses key restaurateur Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations for a new tax on sugar and salt in processed foods.
And again the prime minister risks being accused by critics of turning around faster on food policy than a charity pancake race candidate.
It was in the summer of 2020, following his hospitalization from Covid-19, that Johnson appeared to be turning a new leaf. He stressed the tremendous health benefits of losing weight, adding that he personally lost a stone to a new diet and exercise.
By the summer of 2021, he signaled he did not support a new “nanny” tax. And last month he was accused of a “shocking U-turn” to delay plans to ban TV advertising for junk food, as ministers also delayed a ban on “buy-one-get-one-free” deals on unhealthy snacks.
But despite the criticism, Johnson may have displayed more political savvy and public empathy than he is given credit for. Although George Osborne’s “sugar tax” on carbonated drinks forced companies to reformulate their products, a similar tax on all processed foods could be much more difficult to develop.
Furthermore, at a time when poorer households are grappling with the cost-of-living crisis, any taxes on groceries or the elimination of cheap supermarket offerings (however well-intentioned) can be both counterproductive and doomed.
And while some Cabinet ministers have lost weight dramatically in recent months (e.g. Nadhim Zahawi and Brandon Lewis), Johnson himself is a living embodiment of the British public’s struggle with dieting.
one Videos 2020 of a thinner-looking prime minister, full of gentle persuasion rather than “imperious” edicts, was all the more effective as he personally identified with the difficulty of losing weight.
As Johnson recovers from a Tory rebellion that saw 41 per cent of his own MPs refuse to put their trust in him, his balanced approach to obesity also appears to be gaining support across the party. I wouldn’t be surprised if he told the Commons Tea Room that old joke about Julius Caesar emerging from a fast food joint when Brutus is on his way inside. “How are the burgers, Julius?” He was asked. Caesar replied, “Ate two, Brute!”
Seriously, it’s worth noting that the government hasn’t ruled out one of Dimbleby’s key recommendations: extending entitlements to free school meals to all parents on universal credit.
Earlier this spring, in a little-noticed move, the Department for Works and Pensions made permanent the extension of entitlements to free school meals to families without recourse to public funds, often immigrants, whose asylum applications have been rejected.
Environment Secretary George Eustice made it clear today that extending free lunches to include those on universal credit “is something we are further considering”. With Rishi Sunak set to give such poorer households a £650 living allowance as early as July (a move expected to be legislated for this week), it appears the move to free school meals is still being actively considered .
With the Institute for Fiscal Studies hailing the latest Treasury package as “a serious redistribution from rich to poor”, Tory MPs finally have something very tangible on their doorstep too. Even critics would find it difficult to say that the conservative approach to the working poor is “let them eat cake”.
And ultimately, if Johnson is to somehow regain his political fortune, it could be his much-criticized “cakeism” that does so. Not only does the PM want his cake and want to eat it, but so do many of the public. Like Johnson, many Britons often want European-style spending on public services with American-style tax levels. Like Johnson, many like the idea of losing weight but don’t want to feel pressured into it.
In many ways, he’s the yo-yo dieter of British politics, getting in shape exactly when the campaign season calls for it. Despite last week’s dreadful headlines, some Conservative MPs may also want to hold on to this weekend’s poll, which has left some of their Labor opponents on edge. A Opinium Poll found that Labor had a lead of just two points. Most intriguing of all, Johnson actually overtook Keir Starmer as the public’s choice for “best PM.”
Even last week, Johnson’s reception at the Royal Cornwall Show, where several members of the public asked him to pose for selfies, seemed to indicate that the embers of his former popularity weren’t quite gone. MPs tell me a similar story when he visits their constituencies and on his trips to NHS hospitals he often gets similar requests from staff.
The Prime Minister is still a guilty pleasure for the majority of Tory MPs. Strange as it may sound to his critics, he may even be the guilty pleasure of some voters. Since its predecessor is long gone, Starmer offers a corb-free diet. But in a forced choice between him and Johnson at the next election, don’t rule out some of the public opting for the sugar rush of more jam tomorrow.