James Johnson is co-founder of J.L. Partners and a senior adviser to Kekst CNC. He previously ran polling in Downing Street under Prime Minister Theresa May.
LONDON — “It is coming down the mountain that is more dangerous.”
Such were the U.K. prime minister’s words on Sunday evening, as he outlined the government’s next steps in the effort to fight coronavirus. It is a statement true of the risks and challenges to come, both the fight to keep the reproduction rate of the disease down, and the sacrifices we will have to make as a country. It is also true of the political risks that Boris Johnson now faces.
Up until now, Johnson has received strong approval ratings — some of the best in the Western world. Conservative voting intention has received a boost, hitting record highs for a party in government. People have also been more united across party political divides than U.K. politics has seen for many years, whether on their sky-high support for lockdown measures, or when it comes to how Johnson is perceived.
But as we make those cautious steps down the other side of the peak, the ground is already shifting. A YouGov poll released on Monday, in the fallout of confusion over government messages, found support for the government’s easing of restrictions stood at only 44 percent, with 43 percent opposed. Views now seem to differ depending on which party someone supports — a far cry from the 76 percent of Conservative voters and 83 percent of Labour voters who supported the previous government policy of lockdown.
The biggest threat for the U.K. government, however, does not come from a communications botch, but a larger and more entrenched phenomenon in the public psyche. Compared to other countries, the British public is being taken out of lockdown against its will.
This may seem an odd thing to say, with pictures of people thronging in parks over the weekend, and the increase in traffic on the roads as the working week began. But the sense of active obedience among the British public means we were always likely to follow our government out of lockdown – even if we think it might be a bad idea. As the rules and the tone changes, people naturally alter their behavior. These are not the specific rulebreakers at the start of the first lockdown, but people who feel they have been given permission to do more and do just that, even if they do not particularly agree with it. It might feel inconsistent, but a rule of public opinion is that the public are always allowed to have it both ways.
Because at the same time, the British people are much more adamant that lives should be saved. This was the finding of the latest international survey by KekstCNC, showing that 73 percent of the British people want the government to limit the spread of the disease and prevent deaths, even if that means a recession or depression and major job losses. Other countries are much less sure — only 44 percent say this in Sweden, 49 percent in Germany.
The U.K. is also uniquely united on this, with people across all age groups prioritizing saving lives, bucking the trend in other nations where younger people are keener to put the economy first.
There are different views as to why this is. The obvious answer is the U.K. death toll, but other countries with high numbers, such as the United States, do not share the same sentiment to such a degree. There is no clear pattern related to how relaxed or severe different lockdowns have been either.
Focus groups have shown that Johnson’s experience of the virus altered views of the risk in the U.K., with its image morphing from a mild, flu-like illness into an indiscriminate killer that could knock anyone down much more easily than had been assumed.
Whatever the explanation, this difference matters because the British public wants the government to put their lives above the economy. Their benchmark for success for the government in this crisis is not economic growth, nor merely stopping NHS capacity from being overwhelmed, but deaths coming down and staying down.
In Germany and Sweden, the public are aligned with their governments. As lockdowns are lifted, or in the case of Sweden measures stay relaxed, they want more of a focus on the economy. In the U.S., though Democrats would no doubt be mortified by a second spike, unprecedented polarization means many Republicans back the president and a move out of lockdown whatever the consequences. President Trump even talks about the likelihood of more deaths because of his approach — a position completely unimaginable in the U.K. Put simply, in many other countries, the public feel partly culpable in the lifting of lockdown.
The British are not. Instead, generally speaking, the lockdown has been lifted without their permission. If deaths increase, it is not going to be forgiven or forgotten; it will not be seen as inevitable, or a reasonable price to get the economy up and running. In any country, a second spike would have tragic consequences. But in the U.K., the political damage has the potential to be much greater than in other nations.
And all the signs are that this blame will fall at the government’s door. Gone are the days of a select few breaking the lockdown rules, as happened with spates of largely young men in early April, who became the rightful source of public anger. Some journalists, such as Krishnan Guru-Murphy and Emily Maitlis, have suggested recent confusion over government messages could be deliberate, “part of a larger strategy of deniability” so the public blame themselves. But government is much more often the province of cock-up rather than conspiracy. And even if this were true, voters rarely blame themselves for anything.
Other political parties are aware of this. Though genuine concerns are no doubt their primary motivation, this will be on the minds of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as she formulates her different approach, as well as Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham as he ramps up criticism of the government in Westminster. Most of all, Labour leader Keir Starmer will be thinking it as he introduces himself to the nation.
Downing Street are aware of the risk too. The Sunday Times reported last week “senior Conservative sources” saying people in government have an eye on the approval ratings of other national leaders. “Every leader had huge support at the peak but now that support has started to come down quite sharply,” the source was reported to have said. “We are entering the moment of maximum political risk.”
Because of the unique circumstances in Britain, because of the public’s unique view, that risk could be quite a bit higher than in other nations.
Declarations that the government is irretrievably finished are clearly wrong. We are six months into the biggest Conservative majority in more than 30 years. Even with the issues at the start of the pandemic in March, people tend to vote for political parties based on what they look like they will do next, rather than punish or reward them for what they have already done. And, of course, there is every possibility that Johnson can navigate the difficulties ahead and be met with victory once more.
But reputations will, for certain, be made and lost during this crisis. Those reputations will be carried into the next general election, this time with a competent Labour leader who is not written off by swing voters by the very mention of his name. It is a tough journey down the mountain, and it is only just beginning.