It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After winning the largest majority for any political party since 2001 Boris Johnson was, by now, supposed to be well on his way to redefining Brexit Britain.
In some alternate reality we are all sat on Twitter debating the early ingredients of ‘Johnson-ism’: reform the civil service; ‘level-up’ the regions; launch a new immigration policy; finish phase two of the Brexit negotiations; deliver a bold new budget by Rishi Sunak, the 39-year-old Chancellor who was in the fast-lane to becoming Britain’s first non-white prime minister.
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Pretty much all of that has been thrown out of the window. The sudden and shocking outbreak of coronavirus has rightly focused our minds on the fragility of human life. But it also reminds us of the fragility of politics; how entire governments can be suddenly and easily knocked off course by events that are out of their control. The historian A.J.P. Taylor once said that politicians cannot create the current of events — they can only float along and try to steer. But Taylor was talking about the contours of European history not a sudden, global epidemic. The coronavirus looks less like a current than an overwhelming tsunami.
And it is a crisis that will define Johnson’s premiership.
Some Prime Ministers, despite what they might have hoped, are only ever remembered for one thing. Anthony Eden and Suez. Tony Blair and Iraq. David Cameron and Brexit. Theresa May and the same thing.
Like his immediate predecessors, Johnson had also been destined for the Brexit trap before he somehow managed to escape by landing his party a large majority and himself a second chance. But now that door has closed as quickly as it opened. The coronavirus has replaced Brexit as the one thing that will determine how Johnson is remembered.
And what impact is the crisis having? Spend time on social media and you might conclude that it is demolishing our new Prime Minister. Ever since the crisis erupted Johnson and his government have been widely criticised for what their critics argue has been a slow and incompetent response. “Johnson says this is war”, reads one column in the Guardian. “But his response to Covid-19 is laughably inadequate”. Others claim that the Prime Minister is “struggling to inspire trust“.
But is this really the case? Or are our partisan biases doing much of the work? Take a dive into the polling and the picture looks rather different. If anything, it’s more positive for Johnson than his critics suggest.
According to the latest political monitor from Ipsos-MORI, which was released this week, amid the height of the panic, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party have hit 52% in the polls — an increase of 5 percentage points since the last poll in early February. The last time the Conservative Party enjoyed this level of support while being in office was in the autumn of 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street, and before that during the Falklands war in 1982.
As the scale of the crisis has gradually unfolded the Conservatives have opened up a striking 22-point lead over Labour in the polls — again, an increase of 5 percentage points on the party’s lead back in February. In fact, there is really nothing in the polling to suggest a weakening of public support for Johnson and his administration — yet.
Nor is this the only indicator.
Boris Johnson’s own leadership ratings have also increased. When YouGov asked the British people this week whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job he is doing as Prime Minister, they handed Johnson a “net satisfaction” rating of +14. This is a significant increase on his negative rating of -20 back in December and +3 in February. In fact, Johnson has never before had a net satisfaction score this strong. His government, too, is seen in a better light; net public satisfaction has risen from -49 back in December to -10 in February and to +7 today.
The polls do hide significant polarisation, of course. Our political identities continue to shape how we see the world around us. When asked this week whether Johnson’s government is underreacting, overreacting or reacted about right only 38% of all voters felt it was underreacting. But look under the bonnet and you find that while 60% of Conservatives think that the government has reacted ‘about right’, 55% of Labour voters think it has ‘underreacted’.
Similarly, when asked how much confidence they have in the new government to handle the outbreak 77% of Conservatives have a ‘a lot’ or ‘fair amount’ while 60% of Labour voters have ‘very little’ or ‘no’ confidence. Even coronavirus is filtered, at least partly, through our partisan eyes. And, much like coronavirus, a new picture in the polls could arrive suddenly and without warning.
But if the early snapshots of are accurate, and most people are actually responding fairly positively to the Government during this crisis, then what might explain that?
One possible answer, hidden away in political science, is what is known as the ‘rally effect’. When citizens suddenly feel that they and their wider community are under threat from a big external challenge they start to rally round their political leaders or institutions. The classic example are the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush’s approval ratings rocketed and remained strong for months afterwards. Another took place ten years earlier, when Bush’s father enjoyed a similar boost amid Operation Desert Storm.
It is too early to know if Johnson is going to enjoy such an upturn — and the slightest thing, such as his poorly received press conference yesterday could make a difference — but it is worth noting that the coronavirus exhibits all of the hallmarks of something that could produce this kind of reaction. It is external, it poses an existential threat and it has come suddenly, without warning. Johnson is also helped in this by the ineffective and largely leaderless Opposition, which is allowing him to define much of the response.
But it is also not too hard to see how things could go the other way. A more fashionable argument in political science right now is that what ultimately seals the fate of governments is whether or not they are seen as competent during big ‘external shocks’, like the one we are facing today. It is when the country is grappling with unsettling mega-events that people look the hardest for solid, competent leadership. And if they don’t get it then they punish whoever is in charge at the next election.
Look back at the past two decades in British politics and you can see how this played out. It was during the financial crisis when Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and New Labour started to be blamed by voters for managing the economy incompetently and were thrown out.
Then, it was during the big upsurge of immigration when both Labour and the Conservatives were blamed for managing it incompetently, which paved the way for Mr Farage and UKIP. And then, at the 2016 referendum, it was the belief that all of the main parties had managed a succession of these shocks badly — migration, the financial crisis, perhaps also the parliamentary expenses scandal — which found its voice through the vote for Brexit.
As the academic team behind the British Election Study argue, these big and sudden external shocks “act as catalysts for large-scale vote-switching”, encouraging voters to question their political loyalties and set out on the search for a new political home.
For now, at least, Boris Johnson appears to be on the right side of this crisis — even if the usual suspects on social media are doing all that they can to suggest the opposite. But there is no guarantee how long that will last, whether Johnson will be able to steer the boat in the right direction and what might happen if voters decide that he has failed to do so. What does appear certain is that this crisis will make or break his premiership and reshape British politics along the way, albeit in ways that Johnson was not intending when he won his majority.