Paralysis after the death of their leader has given way since his return to the alarm at the wheel of their coxswain zigzag. His 13-minute speech to the nation made a bigger dent in public opinion than the boat. No effort has been made to tone down his new return to work message. Without consulting teachers, nursing home managers, mayors or leaders of other nations, he of course faced a backlash. Stay alert? Since then, he has not exactly sparked ministerial languages.
Boris Johnson came to power on brilliant messages, his spinners turning straw into electoral gold with “Take back control” and “Make Brexit”, but all that has disappeared. He likes being liked, but approval rates plummet: Opinium polls showed a net approval rate of +42 for his handling of the virus in March; which fell to -3. YouGov’s +51 net approval rating March 27 plunged to -2. Keir Starmer’s personal rating exceeded that of Johnson last week. The government was flattened by Johnson’s crackdown by Starmer on Prime Minister’s questions about the appalling death rates in nursing homes.
Fresh from a mega victory and an age of the next election, why should the government panic? Because serial snippets, missteps, policy reversals, and an honestly gone connection risk damaging it beyond repair. No one knows all the right numbers yet, but confidence wanes when the government uses them anyway. After Professor Tim Spector warned that Britain’s failure to list the 14 main symptoms of the virus meant that between 50,000 and 70,000 people with Covid-19 were not wrong. self-isolate, the government rushed to add “loss of smell” to its official list of symptoms. But expressing uncertainty is foreign to ministers who have been selected for an absolutist spirit of Brexit.
A report last week said that Johnson had warned the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenches that they faced agile opposition and a “slippery adversary.” Tellingly, Starmer is not slippery. But Johnson, captain of the chancellors with his handpicked team of night thieves, fiber and manufacturers, the fears appear in unflattering contrast with the leading peloton of Labor, serious and serious heavyweights. Politics is not a game for them, as it has always been for Johnson, but he is unprepared when his old swagger cannot seduce the dead.
Confidence diminishes when it is most necessary to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it is wasted on slippery promises made to fill the first pages of a day, but which are sure to be exposed soon after. We could take the well-trodden path: the government wildly approaching between herd immunity, monitoring and tracing, then neither monitoring nor testing, then locking, then releasing, but only to visit real estate agents and garden centers, but not the family. “Only by following science”, say the ministers, or, as one can say, political science. But they get this political science wrong.
Take Matt Hancock staggering claim Friday: “From the start, we tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes… we made sure that care homes had the resources they needed. What wise voter doesn’t know it’s an outright lie? No tests and no PPE, as nursing homes – some close to bankruptcy – were forced to take untested, possibly infected, hospital patients without enough doctors, staff, training, or isolation space. To take the public for fools destroys confidence.
No government could have been fully prepared when the horror tsunami broke out. No reasonable voter would expect everything to happen, just in case. Admittedly, a decade of cuts has left us exceptionally unprepared and the government has preferred failing private companies to handle PPE, testing and tracking better-equipped local authorities. However, he could have kept the public’s trust with honesty and transparency, consult everyone, publish everything, admit failures.
But it continues, the absurd goals missed and lied, the charts of global comparisons fell precipitously. Hancock promises that all nursing home staff and residents will be tested in early June – but will it be weekly, with quick results?
“Following science” often means dodging scientists and letting them take over: Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the British government, and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer of England, are, after all, civil servants, not independent. The most unfortunate figure who covered the ministers was England’s deputy medical director, Jenny Harries. Before the lockdown, she supported Johnson’s plan not to ban large gatherings, noting: “We have looked at what kinds of interventions could help manage this as we move forward, pushing the peak of the epidemic toward Before, and in general, these kinds of events and large gatherings are not considered to be something that will have a great effect. So we don’t want to disturb people’s lives. She defended the fatal end to tracking and tracing: “There comes a point in a pandemic when it is not an appropriate response.” She called the UK an “international example of preparation” and told doctors to have an “older” conversation about the lack of PPE. She repetitive advice that it was “very unlikely” that nursing homes would be infected.
This government of world-class spinners and first-rate manipulators of public opinion learns nothing: on Friday, Hancock’s fallacious figures on the number of tests carried out – almost double the number of individuals actually tested – were triggered instantly by the BBC Reality Check. As confidence evaporates, why continue to set new goals that the government will miss?
Politicians are panicking for two life rafts: guys falling inside and public enemies. Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill is beaten, while Hancock protests that it is not fair to be blamed for him. But finding public enemies is their favorite of the two. Despite a wave of public appreciation, the BBC is beaten in the right-wing press. Teachers have been put in place for the role of the enemy and are dismissed from opening schools at an arbitrary date. Gove praises the Danes for a smooth reopening: they did so with extensive union consultation. When the British Medical Association supported the teachers, the doctors were attacked: it certainly won’t end well.
Local authorities and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations are also still thrown out as enemies, without any of them being consulted. But if “race to the top” is still Johnson’s goal, the counsels ask why additional funds are going to richer places rather than poorer places – for example, Wiltshire more than Knowsley on Merseyside. Sadiq Khan, on the other hand, is the Conservatives’ favorite regular enemy because they are forcing him to raise fares on public transport in London.
But political aggression against public officials is as narrow a response to public sentiment as Priti Patel’s refusal to lift the £ 625 per year NHS surcharge on foreign health and care staff for the privilege of taking care of us. : doesn’t she hear the applause? The Brexit negotiations that will lead to no agreement are, the ministers hope, winning – but they may not be able to hide chaos in ports and a drop in GDP amid the economic crisis of coronaviruses.
Everything about this low-grade callow team makes it the most incompetent government in living memory to deal with this great crisis. Rishi Sunak did well to water the merger with money, but his real test is yet to come. For the rest, they learn nothing from their mistakes, eroding all confidence in the notion that their main motive could serve the best interest of the public, without saving their own skin. Boris Johnson appears to be an increasingly inadequate figurehead for their routed vessel.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist