Why Britons have Lost Trust in Boris

03.06.20 Publication:

To outsiders, it must look like a farce. While the British economy is slumping, the country is
moving into huge debt, and it has lost more than 37,000 lives officially to Covid-19, all that
the political world and the media can talk about is whether Boris Johnson’s chief advisor
Dominic Cummings is lying about whether he broke lockdown rules in early April, and
whether he can really have driven 90 kilometres just to test his eyesight. And it really is
absurd. But the issue isn’t truly about the lies or the lockdown rules. It is about trust in the
British government and Prime Minister Johnson’s own competence.

What is striking all over the world about the politics of the pandemic is that there is
no direct correlation between the health and mortality outcomes suffered by countries and
the popularity of their governments. Japan, for example, has suffered less than 850 deaths
and yet approval ratings for its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, have fallen to record lows. Italy
and the UK have suffered similar overall mortality rates and the governments made similar
mistakes in not closing down economic activity soon enough, and yet Giuseppe Conte’s
approval rating remains at high levels and Boris Johnson’s has collapsed.

Quite understandably given that this is a health and economic crisis of a sort
unprecedented in all our lifetimes, voters are not holding their governments directly
responsible for what has happened and nor have they expected them to act like geniuses or
miracle-workers. But what they have valued is clear communication, consistent decision-
making and basic fairness in handling a crisis that affects everyone.

This is where Boris Johnson has fallen down, and badly. Like other political leaders,
he was slow to understand the seriousness of the pandemic and so was slow to take action.
But he was forgiven for that. When he himself fell ill with covid-19 and had to be
hospitalised, public sympathy for him and his family was strong and sincere. But already at
that point doubts were setting in about the clarity of his leadership and his government’s
competence, thanks to the fact that its communication about the virus and the UK’s health
response kept on changing or else was contradictory.

Bold promises were made both by the prime minister and by his health minister,
Matt Hancock, about how rapidly testing capacity would be built up, and they were broken.
Patriotic declarations were made about rapidly establishing British manufacturing capability
for personal protective equipment and for intensive care ventilators, and the
implementation was chaotic and confusing. Following criticism that the prime minister and
his senior team were not communicating regularly through the media, Number Ten
Downing Street set up a daily media briefing. But the messages continued to be confusing.

Boris Johnson has always seen himself as a heroic style of leader, not a man for
details but rather someone to inspire colleagues and the party in the manner of Winston
Churchill. But in this crisis, both before and after his illness, his speeches have failed to
inspire either belief or confidence. His lack of command of the detail has led to doubts over
whether he understands his government’s own policies. Now that the opposition Labour
Party has a new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who is a former public prosecutor and so has a
superb command of detail, the prime minister’s shortcomings have been exposed
mercilessly and repeatedly.

Which brings Britain now to the farce of Dominic Cummings, a man who is to
Johnson a much cleverer version of what Steve Bannon was to Donald Trump. Since last
Friday, the political world has been obsessed with the question of whether Mr Cummings
broke Britain’s detailed lockdown rules when he and his wife both showed symptoms of
covid-19 leading him to drive 420 kilometres to the north of England to stay on his parents’
estate during his illness, at a time when at every day’s media briefing the message was the
same: Stay at Home.

To the British public, the case of Mr Cummings matters because it strikes at the
heart of their trust in what the government says and what the rules are supposed to have
meant. In many voters’ eyes, not only did Mr Cummings break the rules in the belief that
those rules did not really apply to important people like him, but has now lied about it. Even
more important than that, Prime Minister Johnson has failed to act decisively to condemn
this rule-breaking and to punish it.

Even the right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph have
turned against Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. Instant opinion polls show a clear
majority of the public believe Mr Cummings should resign. Whether this will happen is not
certain. Johnson probably has a strong enough majority in Parliament to survive a rebellion
among his own party and there will be no general election until 2024 and no local elections
until 2021. So he may think he can tough this out. But even if the outcome is not clear, the
implications are evident: his personal authority has been damaged catastrophically. It will
take either a miracle or political genius for him to recover from this.

Image by Succo from Pixabay