The question began as a disbelieving mutter. It grew into an incredulous rumble. It is now turning into a horrified howl. Is Boris Johnson going to get away with his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic? Might this serial bungler even emerge as the political winner of the crisis? The thought is appalling to non-Tories and to quite a lot of Conservatives as well. The question is being asked with particular anguish in the Labour party.
For there doesn’t seem much uncertainty about it. We are witnessing a Johnson redux. Pollsters are reporting an increase in public approval of the government’s responses to the pandemic and that is being accompanied by a rise in support for the Conservatives. Our most recent Opinium poll gives the Tories a seven-point lead over Labour. A YouGov poll has them 13 points ahead. Mr Johnson’s personal ratings are also resurgent. Those approving of the job he is doing as prime minister are now roughly in balance with those who disapprove. This doesn’t make him a tremendously liked leader, but it does mark a dramatic recovery from the depths of unpopularity he plumbed last year.
The aroma of cronyism and pork-barrelling radiated by this government grows more pungent
This is remarkable in the context. More than 120,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the UK, twice the death toll of the blitz, and government advisers are on the record saying that some of those fatalities were avoidable. The government has got a thoroughly deserved name for incompetence and its leader an absolutely merited reputation for slow and bad decision-making in handling several critical aspects of the crisis.
In the past few days, various things have happened that wouldn’t normally endear any government to the electorate. The chancellor has produced a budget which, when stripped of all the marketing, is the harbinger of both a spending squeeze and higher taxes across the board. Health workers are insulted and infuriated that ministers want to give them a miserly 1% increase – a cut after inflation – to their salaries. Taxpayers are forking out £340,000 plus legal costs to avoid a public airing at an employment tribunal of the accusations of bullying against Priti Patel. The aroma of cronyism and pork-barrelling radiated by this government grows more pungent. Then there’s the baleful economic consequences of Brexit and the destabilisation it is causing to the brittle politics of Northern Ireland. How does a government become more popular in these circumstances?
Pollsters report that the only topic really animating their focus groups is the vaccination programme and how impressive it has been. “The Tories are clearly getting a vaccine bounce,” says one Labour frontbencher. “Everyone I know who has had a vaccine comes out feeling euphoric. They think it is their ticket to freedom.”
This has furnished the Tories with a feelgood story about the epidemic which they can tell the electorate. There are many components to being a successful leader, but the ability to construct powerful narratives is one of the most essential. Margaret Thatcher displayed that gift when she convinced 1970s Britain that the country was in a decline only she could reverse. Tony Blair used his skills at deploying an argument to persuade 1990s Britain it needed New Labour to build a New Britain. Boris Johnson displayed his talent for storytelling when he made “take back control” a salient pitch of the Leave campaign and “get Brexit done” the most cut-through message of his winning election campaign in 2019. He may be rubbish at many things, but he has always excelled at telling self-serving tales.
The stories told by politicians do not always have to be wholly true, or even true at all, to achieve traction. Abraham Lincoln declared: “You cannot fool all the people all the time.” That does not exclude being able to fool a lot of people for a long time.
The pandemic story Mr Johnson tried to tell last year was of a government doing its best in incredibly difficult circumstances which were challenging leaders the world over. Some of the electorate, the segment of the public inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a government tackling a national emergency, bought into this account of the crisis. Many were unconvinced and the more so as the tally of government misjudgments and fiascos lengthened. The vaccine programme arrived just in time to rescue Mr Johnson from an increasingly alienated public and mutinous Tory party. It has gifted him the opportunity to refresh his story and construct a triumph-out-of-adversity narrative. There is evidently an audience for it.
The vaccine taskforce was not the initiative of Mr Johnson ... it was the brilliant brainchild of Sir Patrick Vallance
The inoculation programme does not guarantee a happy ending to the crisis. There will be a large global reservoir of infection until vaccinations have reached the whole world. We might confront one or more mutations to the virus that are resistant to any of the vaccines currently available. The full severity of the scarring to the economy will only become apparent when the furlough scheme and other support measures have been unwound. Many report that Number 10 has become calmer and more disciplined since the departure of Dominic Cummings and his gang, but the prime minister’s essential character has not changed. He could blunder into another over-rapid easing of restrictions and then be compelled to break his promise that Britain is now on a “one-way exit” to freedom.
With those caveats attached, the vaccination programme offers the Tory leader a much better hope of selling a story that serves his interests than seemed possible last year. Many will gag at the idea that he is limbering up to do a Covid victory lap. Yes, he signed off on an imaginative decision to give early government backing to the quest to find vaccines. That was quite bold, but not terribly difficult. It was not his own money he was committing. That is where the credit he is due starts and where it ends. The vaccine taskforce was not the initiative of Mr Johnson or any of his ministers. It was the brilliant brainchild of Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. The distribution has been delivered by the NHS with an efficiency that is in stark contrast to the performance of test and trace and other programmes which ministers outsourced to private contractors. None of which will stop Mr Johnson from seeking undeserved applause for himself. No one ever said that politics is fair. No one ever said he is overburdened with a sense of shame.
Schools return tomorrow. If the next phases play out as he hopes, the national mood will further brighten as the days grow lighter and restrictions are eased. He will eventually have to succumb to the demands for an independent investigation into the handling of the crisis. It will serve his interests if the inquiry takes a long time and winds to a conclusion only after the media has grown bored with the topic and most of the public uninterested in reliving the traumas of the pandemic.
“Getting away with it” has been one of the more consistent features of the career of a man whom other Tories call “the greased piglet”. “It’s extraordinary,” says one former cabinet minister. “Boris has got this Teflon quality. He gets away with things that no other politician would get away with.”
It is not assured that the slippery escapologist of Number 10 will wriggle free of a proper reckoning for his many mistakes, but even the possibility of that happening is a demoralising and destabilising thought for his opponents. Labour needs a counter-narrative to Mr Johnson’s story of a government that did its best in extraordinary circumstances and came good in the end. Labour needs its own story about the crisis. In fact, it has one. The Labour account is that Britain has suffered a particularly atrocious bout of Covid because a decade of Tory government has weakened the economy and run down the public realm, leaving the country ill-prepared for a pandemic. A fatal combination of rightwing dogma and incompetence then meant that the crisis was abysmally mishandled and this means the Tories can’t be the right people to rebuild Britain in the aftermath. This is Labour’s story and there is nothing wrong with it as a rival narrative. Mr Starmer tells it to anyone prepared to listen. Labour’s problem is that it has struggled to get a hearing for its case beyond the ranks of those predisposed to be persuaded that the Tories are appalling monsters.
The vaccine bounce has two lessons for Labour and its leader. One is that Boris Johnson is a lucky chancer. They can’t do a great deal about that. The other lesson is that Labour needs to become much more compelling as storytellers. This is entirely in their own hands.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer