By Oliver Dowsett
For much of this year it appeared as if Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative government were enjoying a seemingly indestructible lead in public opinion polls, inoculated from sustained criticism by one of the fastest coronavirus vaccine roll-outs in the world and the resulting prospect of a “Freedom Day”, when all legal restrictions precipitated by the virus were promised to be removed. Seen to be the party striving to return the freedoms that so many Britons yearned to unconditionally regain, the Conservatives rode on a wave of public optimism which left little room for scandal. This dynamic led to the seemingly paradoxical effect of increased Tory popularity in spite of numerous ostensibly damaging revelations.
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These revelations included former chief advisor to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings’ explosive Commons Committee testimony in May, who in a session lasting over six hours, laid bare the lethargic and incompetent initial government response to the emerging pandemic in March 2020. Cummings attested to the incompetence in the government’s handling of the pandemic, ranging from the lack of urgency for some of the most vulnerable people to be tested prior to returning to care homes from hospital to the initial following of a herd immunity strategy which was calculated to overwhelm the NHS and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
The former chief advisor also specifically targeted Johnson, describing it as “crackers” that he should have been in the position of Prime Minister. Cummings’ extensive rendition served as an explicit indictment of Johnson’s personal leadership and of the poor performance of the Conservative government as a whole in a time of most profound public need, a point vindicated by the fact the UK has suffered an excess death rate of over 180 people per 100,000 and the deepest economic recession of all G7 countries.
This explosive testimony came off the back of a succession of almost weekly revelations in the Spring which similarly depicted Johnson and some of his prominent frontbenchers as ethically questionable. There were discrepancies over who initially paid for renovations to Johnson and his wife Carrie’s private residence above No. 11 Downing Street, with claims that the costs were initially covered by Conservative Party donor money and that this fact hadn’t been declared as it should have been.
This image of malfeasance was fuelled by other allegations of “cronyism”, such as the fact former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s sister’s company, Topwood LTD, had been awarded a lucrative contract to provide waste disposal for the NHS and that Hancock even owned shares in the company. Similarly, itn emerged that Michael Gove, another prominent Conservative frontbencher, has been deemed by a court to have acted unlawfully in the awarding of more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to the market research firm Public First, a company ruan by long-term associates of Gove and Cummings.
You’d think, in light of these highly damaging revelations, which depict a Conservative government paralysed and incompetent during the greatest crisis since the Second World War and self-serving in their use of taxpayers’ and donors’ money, that support for such a government and such a Prime Minister would have fallen. Instead, public support for Johnson and his government only rose, reaching a peak at the end of May, with YouGov’s polling indicating 46% of voters favoured the Tories and Johnson also enjoying a personal approval rating of 40%, both yearly highs. At this point, over half of adult Britons had been administered both jabs of the vaccine, more than anywhere in Europe, and there was genuine cause for optimism that the June 21 final unlocking would go ahead without a hitch.
Two months on, the political landscape has changed significantly, dampening public support for the Conservatives and creating perhaps the best opportunity yet for Labour and Keir Starmer to turn the tide on the Tories and move ahead in the opinion polls heading into the Autumn, when Parliament returns after its Summer Recess. The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, widely attributed to Johnson’s failure to place India on the travel red list quickly enough, and the subsequent delaying of the June 21 “Freedom Day” to July 19 set the tone for a series of Conservative blunders akin to the ones in the Spring. This time, however, public support did sour.
Perhaps the most politically damaging of these scandals was the uncovering by The Sun newspaper of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo, complete with nauseating CCTV footage of the pair embracing in his office at a time when Hancock’s own social distancing laws were still in place. After initially declaring that he considered the matter “closed”, Johnson subsequently forced Hancock to resign and to be replaced by Sajid Javid. This episode was followed up a few weeks later by Javid testing positive for Covid-19 and, having met the new Health Secretary the day before and hence been identified as close contacts, Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were instructed to self-isolate for 10 days, as per the requirements. Rather than simply abiding by these requirements, both attempted to explain that they were participating a government pilot scheme allowing you instead to test for the virus daily and continue working provided they remain negative.
This took place amidst the backdrop of a growing “pingdemic” crisis, with more than half a million people being told to self-isolate by the NHS contact tracing app in the week up until 7th July, crippling businesses facing worker shortages and causing immense frustration. The public outcry at Johnson and Sunak’s attempts to avoid what so many Britons were being subjected to was palpable, refusing to accept the idea that the two most powerful men in government had been conveniently randomly selected to take part in this pilot scheme; both swiftly U-turned on this and begrudging completed their self-isolation.
This combination of broken pledges and U-turns has culminated in a marked down-turn in support for the Tories, with YouGov currently putting Conservative support at 39%, down 7 points from May, with Johnson experiencing an identical decrease of 7 points to 33%. The image created by these recent Tory blunders, of there being one rule for the political elite and one rule for the rest, is one of visceral outrage for many Britons who have sacrificed so much over the last 18 months in accordance with government rules and the idea that political figures can casually exempt themselves from these rules strikes right at the core of many people’s moral instincts.
This outrage was briefly demonstrated over a year ago, when Dominic Cummings was deemed by many to have broken lockdown rules by travelling from London to Durham at the height of the first lockdown. People shouting all kinds of obscenities as he left his house each morning, MPs’ emails inundated with complaints from angry constituents, the public outrage at the idea of this double standard was clear to see. The Tories’ recent narrow loss in the Batley and Spen by-election was attributed by many to the anger surrounding Hancock’s blatant transgression of his own social distancing rules and is symptomatic of the public outrage first witnessed in May of last year brewing again this summer.
Whilst this spells further disapproval for the Conservatives, it represents Labour and Keir Starmer’s best opportunity yet to seize the narrative and formulate a simple yet effective political message that resonates with the British public, something that has so far proved stubbornly elusive. He must channel this sustained public outrage and convert it into an assimilable soundbite going into the Autumn. Too often since he became leader has Starmer lacked a clear and effective message to rival Johnson’s pontificating, which, as the vaccine roll out slows and questions over the future direction of the Johnson government begin to grow, has begun to wear increasingly thin. It is time for Starmer to show that 2021 can indeed be a game of two halves.
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