For a long while Boris Johnson seemed to be playing a political blinder in tackling the corona virus pandemic. Despite the manifest failures of government policy, the lockdown was being observed with little need for special bureaucracy or enforcement and he rode high in the opinion polls, while little attention was paid to Opposition voices.
But with tens of thousands now dead, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis has grown and Sir Keir Starmer is winning media praise as the new leader of the Opposition. The wonder is that Johnson scored so well in the early stages. How did it happen?
Symbolically the high point might be seen in the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8th. The celebrations (note: not ‘commemorations’) were tacitly permitted to break lockdown rules – just like the Thursday evening applause on Westminster Bridge, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner present, a few days after Johnson was discharged from hospital nearby. Displays of loyalty, it seems, took priority over the need to save lives.
And Victory in Europe (VE) Day fitted seamlessly into the government’s programme for the virus, which used every means available to evoke that war and the state’s military role in it. The whole effort focused on the imagined New Churchill in Downing Street speaking directly to the nation. It reflected Brexiteers’ twin obsessions with relations with the rest of Europe and the World War.
The current Cabinet had come into office in July 2019 with very little experience of government. The Prime Minister had held only one ministerial post, as a markedly unsuccessful Foreign Secretary from 2016-18, after eight years as Mayor of London. His greatest prominence came in the Vote Leave campaign in the European Union referendum in 2016 (whose director was Dominic Cummings, appointed as his Chief Advisor when he became Prime Minister).
At the end of January 2020 the Vote Leave team duly saw its dream realised in the formal ending of British membership of the EU and they expected to thrive on political celebrations of this for at least another year. However, that very day the UK’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed. Although Johnson had desperately wanted to be Prime Minister, he was singularly ill-prepared for the hard slog and adaptability the job requires: he did not seem to want to govern, merely to be at No. 10. But suddenly he was faced with as serious and demanding a task of government as there can be.
The government reacted the only way that Johnson knew how: it procrastinated and then tackled the pandemic not as a complex and urgent requirement of administration but primarily as a campaigning opportunity. The aim was to advance its wider project and build up the government’s power and Johnson’s own political image.
Government by slogan and rhetoric
And so we had government by slogan, with rhetorical targets used to silence criticism. I have just read a book about Russian revolutionaries in the run-up to 1917. Whichever faction they belonged to, a major preoccupation was always to devise the right slogans to campaign with. And so it is in Britain now. After the three-word phrases of Take Back Control (June 2016) and Get Brexit Done (December 2019) we have tripartite slogans in Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives and now Stay Alert – Control The Virus – Save Lives. To these we must add an enduring motif of the campaign, which is really another three-word slogan meant to plant a certain idea in voters’ minds: Follow The Science.
Early on, the government resorted to daily televised press conferences instead of announcements in Parliament. Then Parliament itself was sent on a needlessly extended Easter recess, placing the political focus on a handful of ministers and their scientific advisors. They pushed this bold move through with the Opposition demoralised after the election defeat in December 2019 and the Labour Party preoccupied with electing a new leader. Another needless recess of a fortnight has just started.
Not content with this, Johnson also made direct addresses to the nation, after which the broadcasters generally forgot the convention of inviting the Leader of the Opposition to reply. The Queen was wheeled in too, and she duly obliged with a sentimental reference to Vera Lynn, the wartime ‘forces’ sweetheart.’ This was perfectly in tune with the government’s bellicose talk of ‘defeating’ the virus and the VE festivities to come.
The avoidance of Parliament matches a general imperviousness to criticism, in a novel, aggressive form that seems to have wrongfooted many critics. Every time another extraordinary failure is pointed to, ministers respond with an incredible promise of something else two or three months later: for example, successive, ever more ambitious promises of virus tests to silence questions about how far the government has fallen behind previous schedules. This promise is then dutifully reported instead of the failure to reply to the criticism. It seems to be Cummings’ inventive way of burying bad news.
A new Anthony Eden?
The mood seems to be changing now, despite continuing government successes in presentation. They cannot hide their unsought position in the world’s eyes as one of the maladroit villains of the pandemic, alongside Donald Trump’s USA, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and, perhaps, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In early April a health research institute in Seattle had already forecast that the UK would have the largest number of deaths in Europe – despite early crowing that the country had the best epidemiologists, was one of the best prepared for a pandemic and so on.
So, far from the country’s heroic self-image of standing alone in 1940, this is turning into a national humiliation. Governments are rarely appreciated if they bring humiliation down on their country, especially if it entails great, avoidable loss of lives from hunger or disease. This spring’s ugly events in the hospitals and care homes of England must surely catch up with the administration, just as the fiasco of Suez in 1956 did with Sir Anthony Eden’s. Boris Johnson will find no fridge to hide in then.