Wheels coming off the Boris bus

“And though the United Kingdom will be changed by this experience, I believe we can be stronger and better than ever before.” Boris Johnson, national television address, May 10, 2020.

I want it recorded: this week the wheels began coming off the Boris (Johnson) bus.

Trigger: the trigger for dismantling the Boris bandwagon was Johnson’s television address to the nation on Sunday, 10th May. (About the next phase of the Covid-19 response, of course.) It wasn’t his first such address, and certainly not as dramatic as when he announced national lockdown. It was, though, criticised roundly from every political and media quarter — breaking the hitherto ‘give them the benefit of the doubt’ sentiment of a nation towards a government struggling with its Covid-19 response. (A sentiment that had seen journalists criticised for negativity in many social media posts I read.)

Result: The news stories in the days leading up to the address were of a prime minister recently returned to work from his Covid-19 convalescence, trying to plot a path through opposing Covid ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in his administration. The result was a speech that (read it anywhere) confused the nation, was seen as a total muddle, and almost instantly exposed inconsistencies and lack of consultation. (The new ‘Stay Alert’ slogan was widely ridiculed.) The devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland very publicly unsocially distanced themselves from the Conservative government, making it clear they would keep their old slogans and their own versions of lockdown. The Guardian newspaper opined that Johnson looked increasingly like the prime minister of England alone¹.

Symptoms: When Johnson-cheerleading Daily Telegraph begins to ridicule the Prime Minister (headline ‘It’s chaos!’²), Boris should be concerned. (The Telegraph reporting ‘The public had been eagerly waiting for the PM’s big announcement — but Westminster, the press and Twitter were less than impressed’.) Piers Morgan’s stinging on-air and Twitter criticisms were very widely reported. More worryingly as a barometer of the national mood, TV host nice-guy Phillip Schofield told millions over their breakfast “You literally couldn’t write this, if this was in a farce on the telly I would go ‘That is a bit far-fetched, no government would arse it up that much’.”³

Sympathy for Johnson’s Covid-19 illness and recent fatherhood no longer shielded him from universal direct criticism. Previously a renown ‘performer’, Johnson’s lack of grasp of facts and plan are openly dissected. Even firmly Tory, ex-Boris employer, The Daily Telegraph is being ruthless in its honesty: their parliamentary sketchwriter headlining with “Keir Starmer took Boris Johnson apart like a Duplo train set”⁴. (The Guardian’s Marina Hyde has the very interesting observation on a consequence of a largely virtual Prime Minister’s Question Time: “Without his frontbench cheerleaders, Johnson has nowhere to hide.”⁵)

Outlook: Though wheels are coming off the Boris bus, with a universality and never-before seen breadth of criticism, what is the prognosis? In “Covid-19 and the ‘rally-round-the flag’ effect”⁶, Professor Will Jennings explains how Johnson and other leaders benefited from a surge in popularity at the beginning of the crises. Jennings finishes the article noting “Where that leaves individual leaders will depend in large part not just on how they are eventually seen to have handled the current crisis but on how they handle other issues whose importance to voters will gradually grow again.” So could Boris use the EU Brexit bogeyman as as cynical play to boost his falling approval rating? Let’s see!

On a pessimistic note, though, there’s a plausible way that no matter the UK currently has highest European Covid-19 death toll, no matter the government’s Covid-mismanagement/lack of preparedness, no matter Johnson’s difficulty with facts and truth, the Boris bus could move forward — if image and perception of said bus ‘has wheels’ in the eyes of enough (gullible!?) voters.

Explain please: Guardian columnist Andy Beckett⁷ draws fascinating comparison between Boris Johnson and Roland Reagan, US President 1981–1989. Of Johnson, Beckett talks of a politician of obvious limitations, one who can’t cope with hostile questions, one who’s no good on detail, whose speeches ramble, who has few tangible achievements. (Beckett’s list is longer!)

For Johnson read Reagan. (Ex-Hollywood actor, Reagan came to office promising to eliminate the federal deficit by, at the latest, 1983. He trebled the federal deficit during a two-term presidency — just one example of broken promises and scandals.) Beckett goes on: “Like his (BoJo’s) counterpart, Reagan sometimes came across in public as vague, not in control of events, out of his depth. Many commentators, and even some close colleagues, thought he was lazy and often disengaged. Yet many Americans weren’t bothered by his shortcomings.”

A conclusion of Beckett’s analysis is that, sometimes, voters prefer irresponsible leaders to realistic ones — partly because voters can be political fantasists themselves!

Sadly for the UK and sadly for Johnson, Beckett notes a key difference between Reagan-era America and Boris-era United Kingdom: Reagan-USA’s world position was noticeably strengthening!!! Yet Boris is nothing if not (500%) about optimism⁸. The danger for him with a worn-down public is of his optimism sounding deluded and absurd: “Johnson’s cheery nationalism may backfire in ways that Reagan’s never did.”

Conclusion: As a performer and policymaker, Boris Johnson is under universal criticism as never before. Any capital of media sympathy as a leader in Covid-19 times appears totally depleted.

Timing and events⁹ may decide Johnson’s re-election: Will a second Covid-19 spike this coming winter overshadow any political capital from the business end of the Brexit negotiations and retrospectively judge the government’s current Covid-19 management more harshly?

Ultimately, it’s likely to depend on whether enough voters, worn down by years of Brexit and months of Covid-19, prefer blustering, yarn-spinning oratory to a realistic “tell it how it is” alternative.

We’ll need to watch for the interplay of all these factors to see where this is going — and be prepared to adjust our outlook for “Events, dear boy, events”.

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Super short summary: Following his address to the nation on May 10, Boris Johnson is universally criticised and his poor performance dissected from every political quarter, including once-staunch cheerleaders. Any political and personal capital of initial rally-round-the-flag and for Johnson’s Covid illness and recent fatherhood seem gone. However, his government’s poor handling of this crisis may be overlooked depending on their performance in hitherto areas important to voters. There may be a strong parallel between vague/not-in-grasp-of-the-facts/optimistic Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Despite his shortcomings, Reagan remained popular throughout his presidency — but his was a time of greatly strengthening US world position, unlike the uncertainty hovering over the UK’s. For Johnson, his political future may come down to timing, events, and the juxtaposition of his message of optimism against the economic reality for his recently converted voters.

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¹ Guardian, Boris Johnson looks increasingly like the prime minister of England alone, Martin Kettle, May 13, 2020. https://bit.ly/2LDgRqs

² The Daily Telegraph, ‘It’s chaos’: How the country reacted to Boris Johnson’s lockdown speech, Josh White, May 11, 2020. https://bit.ly/2ABkqLN

³ Widely reported, e.g. The Independent, Now Phillip Schofield is attacking his lockdown exit plan on This Morning, Boris Johnson is really in trouble, Sean O’Grady, May 12 , 2020. https://bit.ly/3fRWZ0S

⁴ The Daily Telegraph, Keir Starmer took Boris Johnson apart like a Duplo train set, Michael Deacon, May 13, 2020. https://bit.ly/36hnkkN. For an even harsher view, see also https://bit.ly/3g5FSZI

⁵ The Guardian, Without his frontbench cheerleaders, Johnson has nowhere to hide, Marina Hyde, May 15, 2020. https://bit.ly/2LvVIPc

⁶ The UK in a Changing Europe, Covid-19 and the ‘rally-round-the flag’ effect, Prof. Will Jennings, March 30, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/yc8jjy4y

⁷ The Guardian, How long until until Johnson’s vote-winning optimism collides with reality? Andy Beckett, May 15, 2020. https://bit.ly/2LvVCXQ

⁸ Twitter, @BorisJohnson, May 13, 2020. Johnson’s logic (on Twitter, with my comment in brackets): “We will come back from this. (Plausible.) And though the United Kingdom will be changed by this experience, I believe we can be stronger and better than ever before. #StayAlert. (So he’s saying we will be stronger now than if this had never happened??? Thank goodness we have alertness and British common sense on our side.) Re: British common sense, see, e.g., Boris Johnson, May 11, 2020, https://bbc.in/364XAb2