Sketch: The Ross Thomson school of campaign management
Jeremy Hunt’s looking pretty good at the moment, given the main black marks against him seem to be largely limited to forgetting his wife’s nationality and repeatedly trying to privatise the NHS.
In fact, if anything sums up the sophistication of Jeremy Hunt’s campaign, it was the news of just how quickly the Foreign Secretary identified the demand for a third runway at a London airport as the key issue in Scottish politics.
It was a smart move. As he explained, while sitting in a London airport, to emphasise his expertise at sitting in airports, “Scotland wants a third runway for Heathrow and so do I!”
Well, indeed. It’s all anyone in Scotland has been talking about. When will the national conversation move on?
Not a day goes by that you don’t hear people arguing about the economic benefits a third runway would bring in terms of infrastructural connectivity. The knock-on economic gains. Walk into any café, pub or bus station and it’s all you’ll hear. Nicola Sturgeon is particularly obsessed. When will she get on with the day job?
Well, Hunt’s campaign then stepped up a gear, with a photo emerging of him holding Irn-Bru and some fish. It was brilliant, and his visit to Scotland was clearly a huge success. Massive crowds gathered to cheer him on. “Hunt! Hunt! Hunt!” they seemed to shout, though it was hard to be sure given the thick accents of those present.
It clearly put his rival in a difficult place, forcing Boris Johnson to take bold action. Yes, that's right - he hired Ross Thomson as his Scottish campaign manager.
Now the main obstacle for Thomson in proving Johnson’s popularity in Scotland probably remains his deep lack of popularity. And of course, some would suggest Ross Thomson has much the same relationship with campaign strategy as Chernobyl had with the Ukrainian countryside, but then, desperate times call for baffling measures. You don’t hire Ross Thomson if you’re looking for a man easily swayed by doubt. Or indeed, by reality.
And his influence seemed to become apparent almost straight away, with Johnson responding to a normal question about his hobbies in fluent gibberish just a couple of days later. Contradicting himself constantly, both verbally and through any sense of logic, he babbled, “I like to paint,” before apparently panicking and backtracking. “Or I make things,” he said. Was painting too specific? Don’t get weird, Boris. You’re ahead in the race. Say something normal.
So what do you make? “I make… I have a thing where I make models of buses,” he claimed, before adding: “I don’t make models of buses.”
“What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, right? And I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right? And it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus.”
It was, quite genuinely, one of the least convincing sentences ever uttered. It was worse than that time David Cameron started pretending to eat pasties. Why lie about your hobbies? Just say you like music or something. And if you are going to lie, why pretend you remodel wine crates as buses?
Yet he kept talking. “Do you want to hear this?” he asked. “No.”
“So I put passengers – I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus.”
I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus. It was the sort of sentence you’d expect to be written in blood on the wall on a psychopath’s basement. How exactly are these people enjoying themselves, Boris? And did you paint anything on the side of the bus? Do you keep them in a little garage?
But at least he’s out and about. For his part, Boris Johnson has faced repeated accusations that he is hiding from scrutiny, in large part because he is hiding from scrutiny. Or maybe just hiding. But with Hunt’s campaign laser focused on holding Irn-Bru and talking about irrelevant infrastructure links 400 miles away, it’s no wonder he’s spooked.
Which may well explain his decision to draft in Ross Thomson. Say what you want about the wild-eyed Aberdeen South MP, he never hides from scrutiny. He meets the public, whether it’s advisable or not.
Writing in the Telegraph – an outlet that appears to have modelled its approach to the Tory leadership contest on the role Jeremy Kyle played in de-escalating family dramas – Thomson explained his reasoning. “In Scotland, the SNP’s never-ending calls for indyref2 have become the never-ending background noise of a midge loose in a room,” he said. “Boris is the candidate who has been clear that more referendums – on either the EU or independence – are not on the cards. In doing so he will help swat the SNP.”
Now clearly, these are not the words of someone with experience of trying to swat midges. But then, as the saying goes, any tool is a weapon if you hold it right, and in this sense, it’s quite possible Thomson could actually be very helpful for Johnson’s campaign.
In fact, at this moment, there’s a good chance he’s sitting, covered in paint, desperately trying to turn a series of old wine boxes into buses.