WE knew Boris Johnson was a bit dodgy, but we never thought he was a kleptomaniac. Perhaps he was having a senior moment as he tipped ITV journalist Joe Pike’s mobile into his coat pocket on Monday. He’d been invited to look at a picture of a sick child lying on a Leeds hospital floor because there were no beds.

What was going through his mind? Was the PM vaguely thinking of looking at it later? Perhaps he was worried Mr Pike was going to take a selfie with him. Perhaps he simply couldn’t bear to look at the image. The BBC’s embattled Laura Kuenssberg said that it showed he “lacked empathy”, inviting people to compare Mr Johnson’s performance with that of Prince Andrew over the Epstein affair.

Whatever, it was a fittingly bizarre climax in the election campaign in which Mr Johnson has bumbled and stumbled his way toward what looks like a historic election victory. How has he done it? How did this deeply-flawed character find himself the people’s champion?

Three and a half years ago, he was a confirmed political loser. His Vote Leave colleague , Michael Gove, said he wasn’t fit to lead a bus queue. Mr Johnson appeared to agree with this assessment and stood down from the Tory leadership race.

Throughout his career Mr Johnson has been portrayed as a chancer, a proven liar and a disloyal partner. He was sacked from The Times allegedly for making up quotes. His former editor at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, described him as a “gold medal egomaniac ... manically disorganised ... a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates”. Mr Johnson allegedly assisted a friend, Darius Guppy, to locate the address of a journalist he wanted beaten up.

Last week, BBC’s Andrew Neil, Mr Johnson’s former boss at the Spectator, came as close as legally possible to calling the PM a liar and a coward in a viral video. Neil took over as chairman of the Spectator in 2004 when the journal, under Mr Johnson’s editorial guidance, was being called “the Sextator”.

His ministerial career has been scarcely more distinguished. Mr Johnson was sacked when he was a junior culture minister for being “less than frank” about an affair. He went on to be a colourful and popular Mayor of London. But he was a hapless Foreign Secretary who could scarcely be let loose in diplomatic events lest he said something offensive – like saying the EU was the fulfilment of Adolf Hitler’s superstate project “by other means”.

Labour can’t believe that he’s lasted the campaign. It insists that its manifesto was manifestly superior to the Tory effort. With wages stagnant for a decade, and inequality of wealth deepening in the aftermath of the financial crash, this should have been Labour’s hour.

In its despair, Labour’s legions of supporters on social media have turned on the BBC. It must be the political editor, Ms Kuenssberg, that’s to blame. She’s been accused of seeding her bulletins with briefings from Mr Johnson’s prince of darkness, Dom Cummings.

Labour’s defeatism is premature. There could still be a hung parliament. But Jon Ashworth, the Labour Shadow Health minister, exposed the depths of Labour’s lack of confidence yesterday in a leaked phone conversation. “Don’t worry”, he told a Tory friend worried about a Labour victory. “It isn’t going to happen.”

In Mr Johnson’s defence, I have to say that he has made some good calls politically. He succeeded in getting Brussels to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, even if it was only to shaft his DUP coalition partners. He charmed the Conservative party membership into electing him as leader, even though with his record he might not have been selected as a candidate 20 years ago.

It took more than a little raw cunning to successfully destroy Nigel Farage. In May, the Brexit Party seemed like an existential threat after its victory in the European Parliament elections. Tory commentators urged Mr Johnson to consider an alliance with the BP. But he refused to taint the Tory brand. Now, the Brexit Party is all but extinct, and Mr Farage is saying he’ll spoil his ballot paper.

Mr Johnson understood the significance of Brexit, in a way few others have in Westminster. He realised that it was not about the economy, trade and money, but identity. Brexit was a reaction against the erosion of national solidarity. A populist rebellion against stateless internationalists, against the university educated “citizens of nowhere” by the the uneducated “left behinds” in the English provinces.

This is class conflict, but not as we know it. The Conservatives are now more popular among working class voters, according to the latest Setanta ComRes survey, than among the upper middle classes. Labour can’t understand why people aren’t buying its programme of free broadband, cheap rail travel and energy. “We’ve offered every family £6,700 and still they won’t vote for us”, they cry. But people tend to vote in accordance with their moral universe not as rational calculators.

Borders give meaning to people who don’t have the privileges of education. Johnson voters are English nationalists who feel threatened by the footloose cosmopolitans of Remain. They are people who don’t hate homosexuals, but feel bewildered by the alphabet politics of gender, LGBTQIA+. Freedom to speak their minds is more important than free stuff.

There is a punk element to Mr Johnson. He breaks the rules; defies the legions of woke critics on social media who call him a racist, homophobe and misogynist. Many men – and his supporters are predominantly male – resent being told what to say by people they regard as self-righteous finger-wagging prudes. Told they’re racist for wanting immigration to be controlled. They like the fact that Mr Johnson has affairs.

Social media has been Labour’s best and worst propaganda tool. Conservatives get a brutal kicking on Twitter, where Momentum activists dominate debate. But Brexit voters are well aware how they are portrayed there: as white trash xenophobes who don’t deserve the vote.

If Mr Johnson wins tomorrow, it will be less about policies and more a reaction by white provincial England against a ruling liberal elite who despise them. This is the only sense in which Mr Johnson overlaps with the Trump phenomenon in America. They know he is a chancer, but he is their chancer.

Read more: The election no one wanted with the politicians no one trusts