As Britain passes 100,000 COVID deaths, Boris Johnson is in a crisis of his own making

Rob Manwaring, Flinders University

Two slippery and elusive phantoms seem to be escaping UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative government. The first is the fiendishly viral and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of covid-related deaths in the UK has passed 100,000, making it the first nation in Europe to pass this milestone. The UK now has the fifth-highest death toll in the world. The Johnson government has struggled to manage the crisis, and the human cost is higher than the total civilian casualties the UK experienced during the second world war.

As elusive for Johnson, who for so long has played arch-buffoon and joker, is political capital. The concept of “political capital” feels intuitive – popular politicians seem to have a lot of it, and unpopular ones seem to have none of it. Yet, political science has long wrestled with trying to define and understand it.

The notable sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first to grapple with the idea. The academic Kimberly Casey argues that political capital is analogous to a cake – it requires a number of ingredients and, crucially, not all of them were initially made by the baker. Richard French suggests political capital is made of up of:

[…] mostly intangible assets which politicians use to induce compliance from other power holders [such as business leaders].

After his emphatic 2019 election win, Johnson seemed to have stacks of it. He won a landslide majority of 80 seats and notably broke into Labour’s “red wall” (although the starkly majoritarian electoral system skewed Johnson’s victory margin).

A rampaging virus has meant a bleak winter in the UK, which has just passed 100,000 COVID deaths.
Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/AAP

Johnson has made a number of serious political misjudgements in responding to the pandemic. First, his government has repeatedly been slow off the mark to deal with the crisis. At the outset of the first wave, it played down the risks. In March 2020 he was arguing the UK would “turn the tide” in 12 weeks.

Johnson’s government was slow to handle the second wave, attempting a relaxation of restrictions over the Christmas period. The government’s chief medical officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, asserted an earlier lockdown could have made a difference. More striking was this claim relating to the first wave by one of the scientists advising the government, Professor Neil Ferguson:

Had we introduced lockdown a week earlier we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half.

Johnson also made of habit of either marginalising or just ignoring scientific advice. In tandem with handling the pandemic, Johnson was under immense pressure to deliver a Brexit deal while also dealing with the “economic emergency” of the crisis.

More damningly, there appears to be no overarching and clear strategy to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Johnson’s government has had to make numerous and predictable policy U-turns on a range of issues.

Poor communication has also been a hallmark of the period. The government’s “stay alert” campaign last May was met with public bemusement. The belated introduction of a tier system in October also seemed to cause confusion and was followed by further England-wide lockdowns.

Johnson’s approach has been bedevilled by trying to meet the health challenges while simultaneously trying to rebuild the economy and manage the spiralling costs of the pandemic. The government’s “eat out to help out” scheme proved disastrous, with evidence it appears to have contributed to the devastating second wave.

Worse still were the complacency and apparent hypocrisy that are part of Johnson’s political calculus – not least his handling of the damaging trip made by his then-top aide Dominic Cummings to “test his vision”. Johnson’s own father Stanley has seemingly flouted lockdown rules, all while his government hectors the public. The double standards in Johnson’s approach give an impression of “one rule for us” and serve as a reminder of the levels of inequality in the UK.

Read more:
As a second wave of COVID looms in the UK, Australia is watching closely

There are systemic factors, beyond Johnson’s leadership, that help explain the flailing response to the pandemic in the UK. In a considered essay, Ferdinand Mount brutally reminds us of the systemic dismantling of the NHS and neo-liberal reforms under both Conservative and Labour governments, and the austerity measures that have left the system struggling. Mount’s judgment is:

The malign combination of an over-centralised system and a hopelessly narcissistic prime minister has been fatal.

Will Johnson be able to remake his political capital? If he manages to ride out the current crisis, he has a number of available strategies and systemic advantages.

First, he stuffed his cabinet full of loyalists, many owing their political careers to his backing – even when they break ministerial codes. Johnson is now trying to get on the front foot, expressing “deep sorrow” for the mounting death toll, and a change in advisers is resetting his political strategy. He is adept at downplaying criticisms with the “benefit of hindsight” argument.

The vaccine roll-out in the UK has also been hailed as a great success, and the government is still performing relatively well in the polls.

Crucially, the UK is not scheduled to head to the polls until 2024. If the vaccine strategy works, Johnson knows future elections are not often decided by a government’s record in the early part of a term.

Read more:
As COVID rampages through Europe, it will test not just health systems but social cohesion

The Conversation

Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Boris Johnson’s political brand is in deep trouble

Christopher Pich, Nottingham Trent University

Boris Johnson has had a tricky time as UK prime minister of late. He faces criticism that he has mishandled the national response to the coronavirus crisis, leading to public confusion and a very high death toll.

I would argue that part of Johnson’s struggle stems from his political brand. He has been successful as a politician by projecting a certain image to the public. But now, in a moment of extreme pressure, that image does not provide the reassurances the public needs. Johnson has spent recent months attempting to pivot towards a new political brand, but he hasn’t made it all the way there. Now, what is left is a confusing mixture of brands – leaving the British public uncertain of what to expect from the prime minister, and perhaps even the prime minister himself uncertain of how to act.

Every politician has a political brand identity. They may not care to accept this proposition or agree with the terminology, but they do. For centuries, they have attempted to create, develop and manage a desired position that represents “what they stand for”. The hope is that this will then resonate with the electorate and win them office.

The Boris brand

The prime minister actually seems to have two “Boris” brands. Before taking the top job, “Boris” was positioned as “Boris the comic” – confident, humorous, entertaining, admirable. He was a maverick who often strayed from the party line and was, most importantly, relatable to a wide spectrum of voters. Dishevelled blonde hair, theatrical one-liners and optimistic energy were tools that set him apart from his rivals as a non-traditional politician. In many ways, “Boris the comic” was an example of a politician who built an identity around style over substance, focusing more on soundbites, photo opportunities, stunts and imagery.

The second Boris emerged just prior to Johnson’s elevation to Downing Street. He seemed to recognise that extra characteristics needed to be added to his brand at this point in his career. Johnson and his team attempted to position him as “Boris the commander” – a strong, decisive leader, eye-for-detail, in-touch, prime ministerial, honest and accountable.

However, these characteristics were, arguably, contradictory to the original “Boris the comic” brand. Indeed, “Boris the commander” seems paradoxical to “Boris the comic”. The aim now seems to be to build identity around substance over style.

But for the public, that leaves the crucial question: which is the real Boris? Johnson needs to be careful and take stock. Successful political brands need to be clear, consistent, authentic and believable otherwise they can alienate, confuse and disengage the voting public. If people lose trust, faith and respect with political brands, then loyalty can diminish and support can fade away.

While a general election in the UK is unlikely before 2024, it can be difficult to recover and regain trust and support once lost.

A different world

On the first day as prime minister, Boris proclaimed on the steps of Downing Street that the British people “have had enough of waiting” and his job was to was “get Brexit Done” – a slogan that defined his premiership campaign and the election that followed. Back then, it was clear that the team behind Johnson was in firm control of the brand.

Fast-forward six months and the world is very different. The public are losing confidence and trust in Johnson’s ability to manage the coronavirus crisis. Voters are questioning his credibility, trustworthiness, decisiveness and leadership.

Johnson has faced calls to sack his chief political adviser Dominic Cummings after he broke UK lockdown rules during the pandemic. Johnson’s government was also forced into a series of u-turns, such as the decision to end funding for free school meals for England’s poorest families over the summer holidays. And above all, people want to know why so many have died from COVID-19.

All this switching around, changes of mind, carelessness for the rules is more in line with the brand of Boris the joker. Johnson has become attached to this brand over the years – and it has been successful for him, so perhaps it’s no surprise to see the old brand seeping in. Unfortunately, though, this brand is wholly unsuited to this moment of global crisis, when the public is looking for a steady hand.

The last six months may have given the public first-hand experience of “Boris the commander” and it seems to have delivered him lower levels of approval and confidence. And yet the original Boris brand won’t work now either.

Team Johnson could still have time to reposition his political brand, address the confusion of two distinct identifies and could create a new identity for voters to fall in love with again. After all, Johnson is still perceived as “likeable” and “best placed to get things done”. This suggests the brand can be salvaged.

But a hybrid approach, blending joker with commander, would merely add to the confusion and chaos. Johnson needs to reflect on his current brand and vision for the nation. Johnson needs to commit to either the “comic”, “commander” or a completely new brand identity rather than flit between the two. And he must do this sooner rather than later. The longer the confusion festers, the longer it will damage his electablity.The Conversation

Christopher Pich, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Johnson’s thumping win an electoral lesson in not just having policies, but knowing how to sell them

With Johnson’s crushing win, Brexit will now happen. But this may also be the start of the break-up of the UK.
AAP/EPA/Vickie Flores

Simon Tormey, University of Bristol

So for all the talk of narrowing polls, tactical voting, and possible shocks leading to a hung parliament, Boris Johnson achieved a crushing victory over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the UK’s general election of 2019. With an 80 or so seat majority in the House of Commons, Johnson can now deliver on his core promise to “get Brexit done”.

He can also shape the broader social and economic environment in tune with the instincts of those around him. They are, almost to a man and a woman, hard-right libertarian figures with a barely concealed contempt for the welfare state, the National Health Service, social benefits and all the other elements that compose the post-war consensus.

One of the tricks Johnson managed to pull off in this election was to paint himself as a saviour of public services, and and a leader untarnished by ten years of Tory austerity policies. The British public is in for a rude awakening when it finds out Johnson’s brand of rambling One Nation populism was a cover for a much tougher and more conservative agenda than many voters realise.

Read more:
What kind of Brexit will Britain now ‘get done’ after Boris Johnson’s thumping election win?

So the puzzle that many commentators are trying to figure out is how it is that a right wing figure of this kind could get one over on Corbyn who pitched his entire campaign on the promise to protect the health service and promote public ownership of key sectors such as the railways and the post office?

What became clear as the night unfolded is that former Labour constituencies in the Midlands and the north of the country have been, and still are, in favour of Brexit. Johnson promised to get Brexit done, and Labour did not. For much of the electorate, this was enough of a reason to cross well established political divides and tribal loyalties.

But it’s also clear that many voters didn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn. They saw him as too beholden to sectional interests, too evasive, too metropolitan and too left wing. Johnson, by contrast, came across as a capable if lovably bumbling figure who was able to articulate not only a clear line on Brexit, but also to distance himself from the legacy of destructive Tory policies. In the end it was Corbyn, not Johnson, who proved to be political Vegemite.

Read more:
Boris Johnson, ‘political Vegemite’, becomes the UK prime minister. Let the games begin

This proved a winning formula across England and most of Wales. But elsewhere, the story was rather different. In Scotland, the Nationalists improved their result from 2017, often at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, and indeed the latter’s leader Jo Swinson, who lost her seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

This sets up an important byline for 2020 which is the matter of Scottish independence. With Brexit now almost certain to go forward at the end of January 2020, the pressure will immediately mount to allow Scotland to have another independence vote on the back of the SNP’s crushing performance.

The Scottish National Party’s strong performance, led by Nicola Sturgeon, will lead to a push for independence vote.
AAP/EPA/Robert Perry

While the picture is less clear in Northern Ireland, the overall trend was towards increased support for the nationalist parties at the expense in particular of the Democratic Unionist Party, which similarly lost its parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds.

While the dynamics in Northern Ireland are quite different from those of Scotland, the realisation that Brexit will now take place is bound to provoke a sustained debate on the need for a border poll on the future of Northern Ireland itself. This may take some years to resolve, but the line of travel is becoming clearer, and it points towards the reunification of Ireland. Johnson’s triumph may thus herald the break-up of the UK – to be greeted, it seems, by English indifference.

But the clearest takeaway remains the state of progressive politics in the UK. The centrist Liberal Democrat party had a very bad election. The Green party managed to increase its share of the vote but only managed to win one seat. The Labour Party was sent packing in many of its traditional working class heartlands in the North.

As long as progressive and left politics is spread amongst these various parties, it seems unlikely that we can expect a recovery any time soon, certainly as far as electoral politics is concerned. The Labour Party will now hunker down to decide whether it is going to row back towards the centre under a leader such as Kier Starmer, or whether it is going to maintain the more radical position associated with Corbyn, McDonnell and the Momentum faction that now dominates many local constituency parties.

With the victory of Johnson demonstrating the importance of a charismatic and effective leader, attention will turn to the next generation of Labour politicians. It is difficult at this juncture to be confident there is a serious challenger waiting in the wings of the current Labour Party who can provide an effective counterpoint to the ebullient Johnson. But it must. More of the same will not turn the tide.

The right does not have a monopoly on effective communicators and charismatic leaders. But what it does have is a keener appreciation of the dynamics of the moment: that policies do not sell themselves; they have to be sold by someone who has an ability to connect, to articulate a position that voters feel comfortable with, and which chimes with their own experience, values, hopes and fears.

Some call this populism. But the reality is simpler: this is – and always has been – the formula for winning elections. It’s a formula the left would do well to memorise.The Conversation

Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.