In the summer of last year, Boris Johnson finally became UK prime minister after a long-held aspiration – to say the least – to lead one of the world’s most powerful countries.
Johnson knows more than most the power of effective communications – the shock EU referendum win, coined on the phrase “take back control”, masterminded by his indispensable Dominic Cummings and supported by the right-wing Murdoch press – cemented his path to power.
Fast track to the summer of 2020, and things have drastically changed, for both the Prime Minister and the rest of the world. When a spiky-coated virus landed on British shores earlier this year, Johnson would face one of the biggest challenges any leader would face in their political careers.
Initially – or at least in hindsight, managing the response to the virus and communicating the UK government’s strategy at the start of the pandemic was easier. The situation was completely unprecedented, and countries around the world were facing similar trajectories as the virus took hold. Despite some wavering at the beginning, the UK government quickly announced the instatement of a national lockdown. In a televised speech, Johnson stared solemnly directly into the camera lens, channelling the demeanour of Winston Churchill’s leadership during WWII. The British people responded dutifully.
A turning point in the trust between the British public and the Conservative government was the mishap of Cummings, who took his family to Durham during the first national lockdown when his wife had COVID-19 symptoms. His lack of punishment for the incident sent a clear message to the people: it’s one rule for us, and another for them.
The blunders continued in the months after the lockdown ended. Johnson and other government members blustered their way through interviews and press conferences, with the painful absence of a clear communications strategy laid bare. The British public were often confused and frustrated with puzzling government guidance as the pandemic continued to rage on.
Viral videos sprung up on social media mocking the Prime Minister’s contradictive guidance – stay at home, go back to work, see friends, don’t see friends – which seemed to change on a daily basis during the summer months.
By early autumn, support for the Prime Minister was strained. Welsh and Scottish governments went their own way in their handling of the virus and communicated on a local level, whilst in England, local governments in the North pushed back against decisions made in Westminster. Conservative backbenchers are pressing for the health of the economy against the immediate threat of the virus.
Rather than tackling these issues head-on with a clear and concise communications strategy, the Prime Minister and the UK government seemed to retreat from communicating with the public.
Despite suggesting that there would never be a second national lockdown, the UK government aptly announced on Halloween that indeed one would be instated – which wasn’t a surprise to the British people, who have had to predict the next steps the government would take without being told explicitly. Today the Guardian published an article exploring Johnson’s mixed messages on lockdowns.
The government’s lack of a clear voice and common purpose for the British public has seriously undermined its credibility.
But one person has massively benefitted from the government’s failings – Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party. Starmer has relished his opportunity in the Commons to berate the Prime Minister for his failings, and his strategy is working: Labour now leads five points ahead of the Conservatives in a recent Ipsos MORI survey.
Starmer is conducting himself to be a no-nonsense decisive leader, highlighted most significantly in his recent decision to suspend his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour party after a report found the party was guilty of anti-Semitism.
The tragic truth of the coronavirus pandemic is that there will be no winners, only losers. But the pandemic is revealing the flaws and strengths of the current leaders of the two leading British political parties. Communications is everything during a health crisis, and the UK government have failed to consistently engage the British public over the course of the pandemic thus far.
Will the second national lockdown offer a well-needed reset button for clear communications between the government and the British public? Only time will tell. If they don’t, there could be serious trouble ahead. And there’s one man waiting in the wings to capitalise on such an opportunity.