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Cummings concern

Whatever else he may be, Boris Johnson is a remarkably lucky politician.  Unlike Labour’s last prime minister – who saw the economy melt down just weeks after bottling out of calling “the election that never was” – Johnson is getting his crisis in early; leaving him more than four years to overcome the damage.  It is largely for this reason that Johnson’s mercurial chief advisor still has a job today despite his car-crash interview in the Downing Street rose garden three days ago.

For all of his oft-trumpeted intelligence, Cummings made a gross error of judgement – possibly informed by a technocratic distain for ordinary people – in trying to bluff his way out of being caught breaking the very rules that his government had imposed upon everyone else.  The childcare bit you might, just, at a stretch, buy into; the 45 minute drive to a picnic spot next to the river in Barnard Castle to test if your vision has recovered enough to safely drive (or perhaps for more nefarious reasons); not so much.  In any case, the reality is that ordinary folk had already been fined for doing what Cummings had done; and the suggestion that others facing similar childcare concerns were bad parents went down like a lead balloon.

Polling expert Peter Kellner points to the serious trouble that Johnson’s government is in at the moment:

“At the start of the crisis, voters rallied round the government. At a time of national danger, the great majority of us wanted to believe that ministers were getting it right. We were reassured that they were following ‘the science’. When the Prime Minister caught the virus and ended up in intensive care, his ratings climbed further: there could be no more dramatic proof that ‘we are all in this together’. It was a classic valence response.

“As the death toll climbed, so did the doubts. The timing and nature of the government’s policies were called into question. Johnson’s ratings started to decline. As I have noted in previous articles, the poll figures last week and the week before told a story of mounting public concern — but concern more than anger. By historical standards, Johnson’s ratings as Prime Minister remained fairly healthy. The Conservative lead over Labour, which had risen from a pre-crisis average of 20 points to 24 points, slipped to 13 points by last week — a marked decline, but only back to the kind of lead that delivered an 80-seat Tory majority last December…

“The ratings of Johnson and his Government have tumbled since last week. And separate YouGov surveys, together with today’s JL poll for the Daily Mail, tell of a growing public belief that Dominic Cummings broke the rules and should now resign or be sacked.

“We can, perhaps, add the message from MPs’ postbags and radio phone-ins. They have no statistical validity; but when so many MPs say their postbag has never been greater, and the intensity of the voices heard on LBC and other stations is so great, we can at least say they do nothing to contradict the polls.”

Kellner argues that polling general solicits two types of views – “positional” (those which relate to views on a particular policy) and “valence” (those which reflect broader issues like competence and fairness):

“What we are witnessing is another classic valence response, but in the opposite direction from that at the start of the lockdown. The Cummings story has cut through precisely because it is so clear. We need not grapple with the debates about precisely how many people have died, or whether schools are reopening too soon. Instead we have a vivid tale of lies, arrogance, double standards, and feeble excuses from Cummings, and misplaced loyalty from a floundering Prime Minister who seems to be more concerned to protect a dodgy ally than do the right thing.”

Johnson’s gamble – which appears to be paying off – is that this crisis is so early in his government’s term of office that he will be able to ride out the storm.  For all of the apparent miscalculation of the Cummings garden press conference, those involved may have seen the latest – pre-lockdown – newspaper circulation figures; which show that year-on-year all of the national establishment newspapers continue to haemorrhage readers.   They will also have been aware of the recent Sky News/YouGov poll on public trust in the media reveals a general collapse in trust in the establishment media which pre-dates the Covid-19 crisis:

“Public trust in news journalists on coronavirus reflects trust how people see them more widely. In their latest poll, YouGov asked respondents about how much they trusted journalists on coronavirus specifically and in general – finding little difference between the two. The public don’t much trust journalists from the tabloids or ‘mid-market’ newspapers. They are much more trusting of journalists from upmarket papers and television news.”

This said, even the BBC falls short of being trusted by a majority of respondents, and is only trusted to tell the truth about Covid-19 by 48 percent .  More worryingly, though:

“One notable feature of recent polling is emergence of a partisan divide that has sharpened during the coronavirus crisis. Towards the end of the 2019 election campaign, trust in journalists for television news and upmarket newspapers was pretty much the same regardless of whether people supported the Conservatives or Labour. Since, Labour voters have become more trusting of media, while the latest YouGov poll reveals that trust has fallen among Conservative voters over the past week. While this partisan gap is quite typical for trust in BBC journalists (who since 2010 have usually been viewed more positively by Labour supporters), it has been turned on its head for broadsheets. Traditionally Conservative voters have tended to be more trusting of upmarket newspapers, but this is no longer the case – with 46% of Labour voters saying they trust journalists from these papers, but just 29% of Conservative voters saying so (a nine-point swing on the partisan balance of opinion from December).”

This speaks to the broader schism which has opened up in the British (and USA) electorate between the supporters of the neoliberal right and the nationalist populist right – with most of the establishment media (and especially the supposedly impartial BBC) strongly supporting the anti-Brexit neoliberal right.

It is no accident that Johnson’s and Cummings’ plan of attack over the last three days has involved a concerted effort to portray critics as disgruntled remainers whose true motives for attacking Cummings are because they believe it will help them to derail a Brexit process which will become inevitable if the UK doesn’t ask for a two-year extension to the withdrawal period by the end of June.

One of the mistakes that many on the Remain side of the Brexit schism make is to assume that pro-leavers like Cummings secretly share their belief that the economy will be undermined when Britain withdraws from the EU, but are pursuing Brexit for sordid, personal gain.  Most, though, seriously believe that leaving the EU is the first step toward Making Britain Great Again – that also goes for the 50 or so “Red Wall” Tories who owe their seats to Johnson and Cummings’ explicitly pro-Leave general election campaign last December.   Behind the scenes, Tory whips will be pressuring MPs to drop calls for Cummings to resign because it threatens a Brexit project that most of them genuinely believe to be in the national interest.

Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, commentators have raised the spectre of what Lord Hailsham once referred to as an “elective dictatorship” – a system in which we get to vote for one or other centre-right party once every five years, after which the business of state is handed over to unelected technocrats like Cummings.  MPs in the meantime are whipped/strong-armed/blackmailed into continuing to support the government in order to maintain its grip on power.  As Lord Hailsham explained:

“Until recently, the powers of government within Parliament were largely controlled either by the opposition or by its own back benchers. It is now largely in the hands of the government machine, so that the government controls Parliament and not Parliament the government. Until recently, debate and argument dominated the parliamentary scene. Now it is the whips and the party caucus…

“The sovereignty of Parliament has increasingly become, in practice, the sovereignty of the Commons, and the sovereignty of the Commons has increasingly become the sovereignty of the government, which, in addition to its influence in Parliament, controls the party whips, the party machine, and the civil service.”

Much of this became reality with so-called “sofa government” during the New Labour years.  As with so many of the ills of contemporary Britain, the origins can be traced back to Tony Blair and what Baroness Helena Kennedy referred to as “government without a rear-view mirror” (i.e. the  failure to understand what a future and even more right-wing administration might do with the legislation and practice being introduced).  The fact the Johnson feels able to tough it out and allow Cummings to remain at the heart of government is largely because Blair followed Thatcher in undermining the power of parliament to hold governments to account.

The longer this goes on, of course, the more difficult it becomes for Johnson and Cummings to U-turn.  Instead, their gamble appears to be that:

  • Despite the polling, the British public isn’t going to do anything more dangerous than signing petitions that nobody reads, sending emails to MPs who never read them and posting angry but impotent tweets to social media
  • The establishment media is a shadow of its former self and has neither the gravitas nor public trust to force resignations
  • With an 80 seat majority in Parliament, there is little the opposition can do
  • With four and a half years before he has to call another election, there is plenty of time left to repair the damage.

They may be right.  In the event that a treatment and/or cure can be found for Covid-19 this year, the immediate crisis will recede, while Brexit and the post-pandemic economic recovery will return to the headlines.  As Harold Wilson once famously said, “a week is a long time in politics.”  With the majority of leave-voters likely to continue to support the project, it may well be that support for the government will have increased by this time next year.

Kellner is less sure, though:

“As it happens, there is a curious historical parallel. Twenty-three weeks after John Major secured his surprise victory in the 1992 general, he was laid low by Black Wednesday, when the pound crashed out of Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism. Twenty-three weeks after last December’s election, the story broke of Cummings’s trip to Durham.

“Major never recovered from Black Wednesday, even though the economy did, and in style. By the time of the 1997 election, living standards were up, and unemployment, inflation, mortgage rates and taxes were all down. No matter: the Tories still lost half their seats and Labour surged to a landslide victory. The point was that lifelong Tories felt that Major had broken the promise he had made in the 1992 election. Their valence judgement was clear: Major could no longer be trusted. It made no difference that by 1997 most voters had never had it so good. The positional defence of the Tory record cut no ice, for the valence stain of distrust could not be removed.”

Cummings has lied to the people and made a mockery of the idea that “we are all in this together.”  He will likely get away with it (in the short-term at least) because Johnson has an unassailable majority in parliament and because, frankly, the people are not going to take to the streets to get rid of him.  How this affects the outcome of the next – 2024 – general election, only time will tell.  We might, in the meantime, consider that Hailsham might have been correct in calling for a written constitution back in 1976.  Because if the Cummings affair has taught us nothing else, it has demonstrated that our supposedly democratic state can be run in a manner that would be warmly applauded by any third-world tin pot dictator.

As you made it to the end…

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