Boris Johnson has won praise from political savants for his message discipline, turning every question into an opportunity to repeat his talking points about getting Brexit done and the need to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street.
But in Grimsby on Monday, that singularity of purpose led him into his worst misstep of the campaign when he refused to look at a photograph of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr, who was thought to have pneumonia, lying on a pile of coats on the floor at Leeds General Hospital because all the beds were full.
The prime minister's extraordinary action in pocketing ITV reporter Joe Pike's phone rather than look at the picture made him appear dishonest and cold-hearted, qualities many British voters already associate with him. The Conservatives' ham-fisted attempt to distract from the fiasco by briefing inaccurately that a Labour activist punched an aide to health secretary Matt Hancock, only served to make matters worse.
The incident has muted Johnson’s closing message on Brexit aimed at Labour Leave voters and turned the spotlight onto his two greatest weaknesses – the Conservative record on public services and his own character.
Johnson's strategy has been to clutch his poll lead like a Ming vase, trying to avoid mistakes and to carry it safely to the other side of the election
Johnson’s most remarkable accomplishment during the campaign has been to avoid any association with his party’s record in office over the past nine years. He has portrayed his administration as entirely new, with no responsibility for the actions of the government in which he served as foreign secretary.
He was not an MP during the coalition years from 2010 but returned to parliament in 2015, voting with the government on every budget that maintained the policy of austerity. On Monday, he was confronted with the consequences of that policy and voters saw him trying shamelessly to evade his responsibility for them.
The spectacle in Grimsby also reminded voters that behind Johnson’s bumbling roguishness lies an icy determination to succeed that is indifferent to the consequences for others or any obligation to tell the truth.
Most polls suggest that the Conservatives are coasting towards victory on Thursday but the margins in many constituencies are tight and there are more undecided voters than ever before at this stage of a general election campaign.
Johnson’s strategy has been to clutch his poll lead like a Ming vase, trying to avoid mistakes and to carry it safely to the other side of the election. Another stumble like Monday’s could be fatal, leaving the prime minister’s dream of glory shattered in a thousand pieces of vanity, mendacity and callousness.