In a time of crisis, the government’s poll ratings go up, everywhere in the world. “Rally round the flag” it’s called and it’s completely understandable: at a time when the government becomes necessary, possibly for one’s survival, people invest in that government doing the right thing. However, this has a time limit and is also fragile; it’s just as easy for people to start flipping and feeling like the government has mishandled the crisis.
There are early signs of trouble for Boris Johnson. The nightly press conference is starting to seem barren; essentially, one of the cabinet members gets thrown on to demonstrate that the government still doesn’t have the answers or a real game plan beyond “lockdown and hope for the best”. Even the most Tory-friendly portions of the media are starting to get tetchy about HMG’s response. The fact that vital equipment does not seem to be filtering through to the frontline of the NHS looks increasingly bad. The fact that Rishi Sunak looks capable and confident doesn’t help Boris in the medium term.
All of this takes time to filter through into poll ratings and with Corbyn still there, reminding everyone of what the alternative might be had the general election result been widely different, the Tories will ride high in the polls for now. Yet Corbyn is gone in a couple of days, with Starmer being given a chance to assert himself as a possible future PM.
The crisis has unleashed all sorts of conspiracy theories on the left, from Boris faking having the virus to the government intentionally killing old people. Yet it’s obvious to anyone not mad that Boris has never been a proto-fascist or a demagogue in waiting; the problem with Johnson is the same as it has always been, which is that he isn’t very good and is in the wrong line of work. I don’t doubt he’s trying his best here, but he’s hampered not only by his own shortcomings but by the fact that he selected his cabinet for maximum short-term compliance over ability, for understandable Brexit negotiation purposes, only to find himself in the middle of a crisis where having the most competent people round the table would have been incredibly useful.
The government can weather this political storm. But it better start being seen to be handling the crisis better than it is at present, particularly as we are about to enter the worst phase of all this, where hundreds of people will die from CoVid every single day. The government is getting to a point where it needs to have a plan that the country can buy into. Otherwise, I think Boris is in real trouble. Sunak is a credible alternative and it wouldn’t take long, in the midst of unprecedented crisis, for the worm to turn on Johnson. Instead of being this era’s Churchill, as he dreams of, Boris could end up being a 21st century Chamberlain.
Next week, I have another book coming out. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s out on April 9th, but you can pre-order here: