Maintain a safe distance or you may be exposed to infection. In the furore unfolding around Dominic Cummings breaking his own government’s lockdown, anger is competing with another reaction among seasoned political observers: astonishment at how far Prime Minister Boris Johnson has forgotten basic political hygiene in sticking so closely to his contaminated chief adviser.
This is a moment of great danger for Mr Johnson’s government: only a few months old and confronting an unprecedented peacetime crisis, it already resembles an administration losing its grip. Members of the cabinet were herded on to Twitter for pious defence of the prime minister’s ally and campaign supremo — including Rishi Sunak, the chancellor whose approval ratings have rocketed even as Mr Johnson’s start to fall. They may regret the display of solidarity with a member of the coterie rather than the quietly suffering British public, now incensed by the exceptionalism.
Is a political tipping point discernible? For the past four years, the Conservatives have been blessed with a lack of opposition as Brexit tore through two of the party’s prime ministers and delivered Mr Johnson to power at the head of what seemed a fresh iteration of the Conservative project. His new coalition of Tory and Labour voters backed an agenda successfully sold as a patriotic project that emphasised effective action: “Get Brexit Done”.
Five months later, that commitment to taking charge looks shaky. High levels of support for Mr Johnson, boosted by sympathy during his illness and the tendency to rally round leaders in an emergency, are ebbing. It will no longer be enough to assume that there is no alternative. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s restrained critique of ministers’ performance is a telling contrast to cabinet bombast at the daily government press briefing, overpromising and underdelivering.
As the UK emerges from Covid-19’s first onslaught, the Tories cannot afford to bungle the economic response alongside the public health emergency. A double whammy of blame would not be survivable, even if Mr Sunak were to offer a fresh face at the helm.
Competence is not always the defining factor in politics — in normal times it is a necessary precondition, a basic requirement for office. But after a shock, political scientists find that changes. “Something happens to make the political competition centred on handling and trust,” as Jane Green, author of The Politics of Competence, puts it. Bluntly, at some point the mood switches from “they’re doing the best they can” to “this is a shambles”.
Usually, says Prof Green, there is attrition on a government’s competence rating over time — the “cost of ruling”. But rather than a series of small crises, one significant disaster can be politically devastating as loss of trust becomes generalised — consider the many years it took the Conservative party to recover its reputation after Black Wednesday.
Coronavirus is both a personal and universal shock. It is bizarre for government loyalists to assert that the Cummings affair is a Westminster bubble story or to question its “cut through” with voters. Every individual and household in the UK has been affected by lockdown, some making extreme sacrifices. The daily press conference reaches up to 27m viewers.
The scandal damages the bond that Mr Cummings’ flair as a campaigner successfully established between the Johnson operation and the electorate. The Leave victory rested at least partly on impatience — disgust even — at a cadre of professional politicians easily caricatured as bloodless technocrats, interested in management and preserving the status quo.
It was Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson at the head of that campaign who brought this discontent with the governing elites to a head. It may be a fitting irony that it is “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy which has mobilised public anger against them. But the more serious problem they face is their inability to show that they, too, can be trusted managers and in a crisis, that they are equipped to govern competently — and to protect the public from the twin threats of disease and destitution.
Last year a Hansard Society poll found majority support in Britain for “a strong leader willing to break the rules”. But it turns out the Brits do want the rules to be observed — even by the leader and those around him. Mr Johnson likes to invoke Winston Churchill. He will not thank me for suggesting that unless Downing Street can recover public trust, the next few weeks could be the beginning of the end of his premiership.
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