Exposed to hostile voices on the campaign trail, he has seemed at times unsure, tone deaf and gaffe prone. It could leave an opening for the underdog Labour Party.
LONDON — For months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned on calling a general election in Britain, figuring he could break the logjam in Parliament by taking his case for Brexit directly to the people. Instead, as he has floundered in the early stages of the campaign, Mr. Johnson has discovered that the people are taking their case to him.
“Where have you been?” asked a man angry at the government’s response to floods that have ravaged his Yorkshire town.
“You’ve got the cheek to come here,” a young woman chided him, saying that his promise of prosperity after Brexit was a “fairy tale.”
“I’m not very happy about talking to you, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just motor on with what I’m doing,” said another woman, filling sandbags.
In the voting this summer for Conservative Party leader — and, hence, prime minister — Mr. Johnson’s prime selling points were his personal popularity and skills as a campaigner. But in the early stages of the general election, exposed to hostile voices, he has seemed at times unsure, tone deaf and gaffe prone.
“Boris Johnson isn’t helping matters, he isn’t winning any friends, there have been so many mistakes,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, while noting that Labour had failed to take advantage.
On Thursday, Mr. Johnson was forced to cancel a visit to a bakery in the southwestern town of Glastonbury after a crowd of climate-change protesters gathered with signs that said “No BoJo” and “Cruel Con.” After he found a friendlier bakery in an adjacent town, the prime minister joked about needing to avoid the “crusties,” his preferred put-down for environmental activists.
Even in the most hostile of Mr. Johnson’s encounters, the voters typically call him “Boris,” which attests to his first-name celebrity — a quality that analysts say makes him a formidable campaigner and still a good bet to win a Parliamentary majority when Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12. The Conservatives have clung to a polling lead of between 6 and 14 percentage points over the opposition Labour Party.
Yet, the charged atmosphere on the campaign trail is a reminder that Brexit has left this country bitter, divided and deeply suspicious of the political establishment. Mr. Johnson and his populist aides set out to exploit those sentiments, framing this election as one of the “people vs. the Parliament.” Now he is finding that some of that anger is being directed at him.
Perhaps that’s one reason Mr. Johnson has seemed less sure-footed than many analysts expected in the early days of the campaign. A shambling, slipshod figure in the best of times, the prime minister has seemed undisciplined and occasionally uninformed during several recent appearances — lending weight to past criticism that he is often lazy and ill-prepared.
Chatting with manufacturers in Northern Ireland last week, Mr. Johnson offered a rambling defense of the withdrawal agreement he negotiated with the European Union, which appeared to contradict the facts of the deal and caused a minor tempest when a video of the episode surfaced.
Waving a glass as he spoke, Mr. Johnson insisted that companies would not have to fill out extra paperwork when they shipped goods from Northern Ireland to Britain. If they were asked to do so, he said, they should call him “and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.” But his own government has said that exporters would be required to fill out “exit summary declarations.”
During a visit to the London Electric Vehicle Company in Coventry, England, Mr. Johnson laid out a cogent case for why the Conservatives were the only party that will swiftly exit the European Union. But he stepped on his own climactic line about how he would “turbocharge” the country’s economic future much like the electric vehicles produced in the factory — musing in an aside about whether one could actually turbocharge a battery-operated vehicle.
“This is Boris Johnson and this is what you get — someone who is slightly unprepared, who wings it a bit — and you either like that and think, ‘Oh, this is Boris’ or you think he is appalling for all sorts of reasons,” Mr. Fielding said.
Andrew Gimson, who wrote a biography of Mr. Johnson, took exception to the criticism, saying there was nothing accidental about the prime minister’s antics. They were designed, he said, to keep Mr. Johnson the center of attention, which in turn helps him press his very serious, but potentially tiresome, argument about Brexit.
“The greater enemy for him is boredom,” Mr. Gimson said. “If people get very bored, they might want to change the subject, and he doesn’t want them to change the subject. There’s method in Boris’s madness.”
While Mr. Johnson has achieved a rare celebrity in British politics, he remains a deeply polarizing figure. John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and Britain’s leading expert on polling, noted that he is “the most unpopular new prime minister in polling history,” though he added that his appeal to Brexit voters made him potentially helpful to the Tories.
“Boris you might want to regard as like a Ming vase,” Mr. Curtice said. “He’s potentially a really valuable asset — you just want to make sure he doesn’t fall on the floor.”
In the last British election campaign in 2017, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, began as a relatively popular prime minister running against an unpopular competitor in the Labour leader, Mr. Corbyn. But she steadily lost that advantage over the course of the campaign. This contest, Mr. Curtice said, was more of “an unpopularity contest,” because of the divisive nature of both leaders.
Mr. Corbyn has also had his share of unsteady moments. Visiting Scotland, he was heckled for the second day in a row at a meeting in Dundee. Worse, his visit generated all the wrong sorts of headlines over Labour’s stance on whether Scots, who voted against independence in 2014, should hold a second referendum on the question — something Mr. Johnson has ruled out.
On Wednesday, Mr. Corbyn said that there would be no independence referendum “in the first term for a Labour government” if he took power after next month’s general election. Hours later, he said did “not countenance” another independence referendum in “the early years” of a Labour government.
Still, there was better news for Mr. Corbyn from Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party. He had already agreed not to contest seats held by Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives so as not to split the pro-Brexit vote, but had been under pressure to withdraw even more candidates to give Mr. Johnson a free run.
On Thursday Mr. Farage said that the party would run candidates, including in seats that are held by the Labour Party, potentially splitting the pro-Brexit vote in areas the Tories need to win.
“If he’s in the House of Commons, and we’re not there to challenge at every step of the way what he’s doing, then I fear we will end up with something that is Brexit in name only,” Mr. Farage said.
Given all the abuse Mr. Johnson has taken, he looked almost relieved on Wednesday when a reporter abruptly shifted the subject to self-abuse. After his speech in Coventry, Mr. Johnson was asked why he had dropped a line from his text in which he accused his opponents of “self-obsession and onanism,” a flowery term for masturbation.
Grinning slightly, Mr. Johnson said, “All I can say is that a stray early draft seems to have somehow found its way into your otherwise peerless copy, by a process that I don’t pretend to understand, but I will make inquiries.”