Johnson has so far received strong approval ratings – among the best in the Western world. Conservative voting intentions received a boost, reaching records for a government party. People are also more united among the political divisions of the parties than British politics has seen in many years, whether for their overwhelming support for the lockdowns or for the way Johnson is perceived.
But as we take these careful steps on the other side of the peak, the ground is already moving. A YouGov poll released on Monday, amid confusion over government messages, found government support for easing restrictions was only 44%, down from 43%. Opinions now seem to differ depending on the party that someone supports – far from the 76% of Conservative voters and 83% of Labor voters who supported the government’s previous lock-in policy.
The biggest threat to the UK government, however, does not come from a communication problem, but from a larger and more entrenched phenomenon in the public psyche. Compared to other countries, the British public is out of control against their will.
It may sound strange to say, with pictures of people crowding the parks over the weekend, and increased traffic on the roads at the start of the work week. But the sense of active obedience among the British public means that we were always likely to follow our government out of isolation – even if we think it might be a bad idea. As the rules and tone change, people naturally change their behavior. These are not specific rule breakers at the start of the first lock, but the people who feel they have been allowed to do more and do just that, even if they don’t particularly agree with it. It may sound inconsistent, but a rule of public opinion is that the public is always allowed to play back and forth.
Because at the same time, the British people are much more adamant that lives should be saved. This is revealed in the latest international KekstCNC survey, showing that 73% of Britons want the government to limit the spread of the disease and prevent deaths, even if it means a recession or depression and major job losses . Other countries are much less safe – only 44% say this in Sweden, 49% in Germany.
The UK is also particularly united on this point, with people of all age groups prioritizing saving lives, countering the trend in other countries where young people are more eager to push the economy first.
There are different views as to the reason for this situation. The obvious answer is the death toll in the UK, but other countries with high numbers, like the United States, do not share the same sentiment to such an extent. There is also no clear pattern related to the relaxation or the severity of the various blockages.
Focus groups have shown that Johnson’s experience with the virus is changing the way risk is viewed in the UK, with his image turning from a mild flu-like illness into a blind killer who could topple anyone very much. more easily than we thought.
Whatever the explanation, this difference is important because the British public wants the government to put its life above the economy. Their benchmark for government success in this crisis is not economic growth, or simply preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed, but deaths that go down and stay down.
In Germany and Sweden, the public is aligned with their governments. As the blockages are lifted or, in the case of Sweden, as the measures remain relaxed, they want to focus more on the economy. In the United States, while the Democrats would undoubtedly be mortified by a second spike, unprecedented polarization means that many Republicans support the president and break the lock regardless of the consequences. President Trump even talks about the likelihood of further deaths as a result of his approach – a completely unimaginable position in the UK. Simply put, in many other countries, the public feels in part guilty of lifting the foreclosure.
The British are not. Instead, the lock was generally lifted without their permission. If deaths increase, it will neither be forgiven nor forgotten; it will not be seen as inevitable or as a reasonable price to revive the economy. In any country, a second peak would have tragic consequences. But in the UK, the political damage has the potential to be much greater than in other countries.
And everything indicates that this blame will fall on the door of the government. Gone are the days when a privileged few broke the lockdown rules, as happened with waves of young men largely in early April, who became the legitimate source of public anger. Some journalists, such as Krishnan Guru-Murphy and Emily Maitlis, have suggested that the recent confusion over government messages could be deliberate, “as part of a larger denial strategy” so that the public can blame themselves. But the government is much more often the province of the scam than the conspiracy. And even if that were true, voters seldom blame themselves for anything.
Other political parties are aware of this. While real concerns are undoubtedly their main motivation, it will be in the minds of Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon as she voices her different approach, as well as Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham as he intensifies criticism against the government of Westminster. Above all, Labor leader Keir Starmer will reflect on this by introducing himself to the nation.
Downing Street is also aware of the risk. The Sunday Times reported last week “high-level conservative sources” saying that government officials had an eye on other national leaders’ approval ratings. “Each leader has received huge support at the top but now that support has started to drop quite sharply,” a source reportedly said, “We are entering a time of maximum political risk.”
Due to the unique circumstances in Britain, from the public’s unique perspective, this risk could be slightly higher than in other countries.
Claims that the government is irretrievably over are clearly false. In six months, we are the largest conservative majority in more than 30 years. Even with the problems at the start of the pandemic in March, people tend to vote for political parties based on what they seem to do next, rather than punishing or rewarding them for what they have already done . And, of course, it is entirely possible that Johnson could overcome the difficulties ahead and gain victory again.
But the reputation will undoubtedly be made and lost during this crisis. These reputations will be brought to the next general election, this time with a competent Labor leader who is not struck off by swing voters by the mere mention of his name. It’s a tough trip down the mountain, and it’s just beginning.