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Crisis Narratives: How the Tories failed to control the story

What are we to conclude? That despite winning the Tories' largest majority since 1987, the Johnson government just isn't very good at politics?

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Photo by Jannes Van den Wouwer on Unsplash.

There isn't much to be positive about at the moment, but maybe here's something. Although Britain is going through its second crisis in little over a decade, the Tory party has been unable to frame events to suit its own political ends.

This hasn't always been the case. The last time a malign invisible force from abroad wreaked havoc on the nation, it wasn't a virus - it was debt. By campaigning relentlessly on 'the deficit' in the 2010 General Election, the Tories turned a financial crisis of private debt into a political crisis of public spending. They focused exclusively on the deficit precisely because that single figure conflated the debt created to bail out the banks with the smaller proportion of debt-financed public spending. Once in power they used this as a pretext to undermine the welfare state. Well played, Dave.

Today, we face a very different crisis with a very different government, but some things haven't changed. We are again gripped by a hazard which originates from abroad but leaves us badly exposed due to our interconnectedness to the global economy. We are finding that the institutions that are meant to foresee problems and protect us - The Bank of England, Public Health England - are proving less effective than we would hope. Some of the language we use to describe the two crises is even the same. Economists talk of 'contagion', everyone looks for evidence of 'recovery', while people and economies can get 'sick' or be 'ailing'. Turning on the TV, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only major difference is Robert Peston's hair.

But despite these similarities, Johnson & Co haven't even been able to create a persuasive narrative that the Government is competent and credible, let alone use the accrued political capital to unleash force through a political project. After an initial bounce in the polls, Johnson has slipped behind Keir Starmer in popularity, and the idea that the government might have a plan for anything at all, let alone a crafty project of their own, seems laughable.

This is despite having some things tipped in their favour. The Leader of the Opposition, for example, has hardly come out swinging. Starmer's safety-first policy of agreeing with the Government as much as possible may be the best way to build voters' ease with the party after the Corbyn years, but it means he is following public opinion rather than leading it. Similarly, while the right-wing press is hostile to some elements of the Government's response, it's not like they've got the knives out. Boris is their guy, after all. Meanwhile, if the BBC is having a better Covid crisis than it did Brexit, its editorial line is still depressingly close to Government press releases.

What are we to conclude? That despite winning the Tories' largest majority since 1987, the Johnson government just isn't very good at politics? I think that's got something to do with it. But there are other reasons too.

Maybe it's that the basics of public health are just simpler to understand, and therefore harder to misrepresent, than macroeconomics. People find collateralised debt obligations, credit default swaps and gilt yields tricky to understand. Stats of people dying in care homes are simpler.

The public has a very short memory. When George Osborne made promises about reducing the deficit in five years and then predictably failed to do so, he knew that most people weren't really going to remember. But when Matt Hancock makes pledges about testing, and then the media talks about little else, the pressure is on to deliver - or fudge the numbers when you can't.

Experts too are having a pretty good crisis. The political decisions are fraught but there seems to be a high degree of consensus among scientists about the virus and how to respond to it. The political heat comes from the blunt fact that all the options are bad. Medical expertise is still also considered authoritative and credible in public debate. "Explained the economist" had a lot more weight before voters realised the experts had been caught with their trousers down in 2008.

Add to that the dire predictions of Brexit - yes, I know we still haven't really left - and in recent years economic expertise has become increasingly susceptible to that rhetorical rebuttal which so neatly sums up our partisan age: 'That's just, like, your opinion, man'.

There is a political argument building around the advice and composition of the SAGE group and coronavirus might well do for epidemiologists what Lehman Brothers did for economists. But for the moment at least, it appears that scientists don't have opinions; they still deal in facts.

The long-established and largely separate sector of medical journalism also provides a powerful alternative source of political credibility in a way that finance reporting no longer can. The British Medical Journal's editorial of 15 May might not have made many front pages, but it offers a weighty counterbalance for any prime-time journalist leaning too closely to the Government line for the sake of a quiet life - or Charter renewal, in the case of the BBC. Similarly Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, will presumably persuade more non-partial observers that "the gravity of [the Covid-19] scandal has yet to be understood" than the New Statesmen could ever generate neo-Keynesians.

Perhaps it's also the fact that many of us have had very little to do and we've all consumed a lot more news from a wider range of sources than in 2008. I know it's tempting to turn it all off, but it's not like any of us can pretend this isn't happening. Suddenly not being able to see our parents, children, friends and loved ones forces us to take a view in a way that the slow disaster of the 2008 financial crash didn't.

The recent controversy around Dominic Cumming's lockdown trip to Durham has proved that this government can hang onto its people if it really wants, but the whole sorry saga has badly undermined its credibility, even amongst supporters. Cummings and Johnson might have spun the nation a yarn about caring for one's family, but no one actually believes it. The defence boils down to, 'Oh, you thought the guidance meant that! Oh, bless you.' It might save Cumming's job, but it's no way to win hearts and minds.

Put all this together and you end up with a situation in which if you went out and asked a bunch of passers by what they thought - hard, I know - there's a good change they'd say that the Government was too slow into lockdown, that it hadn't got a grip on the logistics of testing or PPE, and that compared to other countries our death count was worryingly high.

The Tories have cocked this one up. Many people are very angry. Few, it seems, will forget. And Labour have an electable leader who looks suitably reassuring in a suit.

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Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Chatham House.
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