Why has Boris Johnson disappeared from view? He’s betting you don’t care | Katy Balls | Opinion

Where’s Boris Johnson?” Those three words have become a regular refrain over the past fortnight.

Since winning a majority of 80 in December’s snap election, Johnson has gone a little camera shy. When an Iranian general was assassinated, the prime minister sent his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to deal with the fallout while he finished his Caribbean break. When flooding hit areas across the country this month, rather than get out there with a mop as he had done during the general election campaign, Johnson chose to stay at one of his grace-and-favour residences and left the environment secretary, George Eustice, to take the lead instead.

On Wednesday, Johnson made his first public appearance for 12 days at prime minister’s questions. Labour quickly went on the offensive over Johnson’s lo-vis approach to big-majority government. Jeremy Corbyn accused him of being a part-time leader – highlighting the fact that he had been happy to show his face at the Tories’ lavish black-and-white ball fundraiser but not to meet flood victims.

For all the negative headlines Johnson’s disappearing act has attracted, it’s worth noting that this is not cock-up but strategy. His current behaviour is not so different to when he was mayor of London. Although he had a reputation for being a larger-than-life character, he would often delegate tasks and appearances to colleagues whom he trusted. At the time of the London riots he was criticised for his sluggish return from holiday. But this isn’t just a case of old habits dying hard. It is part of a planned media approach that aims to change the pace of political coverage and what is expected of the prime minister.

A conclusion has been reached within No 10 that a lot of the things a prime minister is “supposed” to do represent bubble issues – that’s to say, their main function is to keep the media and Twitter entertained rather than actually serve the general public. The argument goes that to continue to play the media’s game would be to feed the beast. “We’re not going to dance to the media’s tune,” says a government insider.

Issues with the media focus have been running for some time but they came to a head during the general election campaign. There was a frustration on the Tory side that journalists would focus on “gotcha” moments and what they saw as trivial issues rather than the substance.

When Johnson visited flood victims during the general election, the story became the prime minister getting heckled rather than the policy pledges. The campaign trail also generated headlines about him locking himself in a fridge and getting heckled in a hospital. Perhaps the greatest annoyance to No 10 was a viral interview in which a journalist forced Johnson to look at photos of an ill child on a hospital floor.

When the election result came through as a decisive Tory majority, it was to many on the campaign team confirmation that their instincts were right and they could now afford to follow their gut: the public doesn’t care about these distractions.

Johnson conveyed this message himself when he snarkily thanked lobby hacks at a post-election No 10 reception before Christmas for always getting their priorities right in the election coverage.

While No 10 is united on this approach, not every member of the parliamentary party is sold. Opinion is divided as to whether it’s a clever new strategy or laziness bordering on arrogance. With floods dominating the February recess, a number of Conservative MPs took to their various WhatsApp groups to ask where the prime minister was, and inquire as to the plan of action.

The reply from whips was fast and firm: the prime minister doesn’t need to play the media’s game and has no intention of doing so. This was enough for most Tory MPs to stay shtoom. “He’s still in the honeymoon period,” says one member of government. “Most people are sympathetic and willing to give what they’re proposing a try.”

Other parts of the party are harder to please. Those Conservative MPs representing constituencies that have been badly affected by the floods are deeply frustrated with the response so far, with a number even going public in their criticism. They worry that the prime minister’s absence when combined with a slow response to the issue sends the wrong message to voters.

Newly elected MPs are also struggling. “A lot of the new MPs in the north have very high expectations,” says a more experienced colleague. The new intake – many of whom won seats in the red wall – got used to the prime minister making regular visits and getting involved through the election campaign. They’d thought this would continue.

Then there are those who worry about the general consequences of the lo-vis approach. There have already been reports that Johnson is not planning many outings on the world stage this year in order to focus on domestic policies. That has been enough to rattle civil servants tasked with projecting an image of “global Britain”. Now one former minister is joining the dots: “It’s one thing to say the prime minister is missing world events to focus on voters here, it’s another to do neither.”

Not that those at No 10 will be particularly bothered. They believe the thing voters really care about is results, not an endless media parade. The hope across government is that these are simply teething issues as everyone gets used to a cabinet minister being a suitable alternative for a prime minister on important matters.

The Tory discomfort is small enough that it doesn’t present any immediate issue to Johnson. Outcries from hacks or Twitter storms also won’t change the approach. For that to happen there would need to be a big public backlash, and Johnson’s team are betting that won’t come to pass. If it does, expect to see the “part-time prime minister” increase his hours.

Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

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