David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Johnson and Cummings have misunderstood the ‘populist’ moment

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Any hope of putting mass distrust of the establishment to bed with Brexit has evaporated in the heat of the Cummings controversy, argues David Jamieson.

In the four days to 26 May, according to a Savanta-ComRes poll, Boris Johnson fell 20 points in public approval from +19 to -1. The slide in public sympathy, owing in part to figures that show the UK has the highest deaths per-million in the global pandemic, turned into an avalanche and most commentators are at apportioning blame to the Cummings fiasco.

It was predictable that the mood of overwhelming support for pandemic governments – a global phenomenon touching most effected states – would not last. In some senses, the news that Cummings blatantly and repeatedly violated government lockdown measures could not come at a worse time. As lockdown begins to lift, so does the most heightened sense of self-imposed discipline in the population.

As SC Cook, a journalist at Voice.Wales argues:

[The] truth is the government’s Covid strategy is in ruins following the Cummings revelations.

After rowing back on herd immunity when they saw public mood combined with the seriousness of the virus itself, they tried to pursue a more ‘one nation’ approach, supported by the opposition and devolved governments.

That started to crack when they pushed to end lockdown early, but they still tried to balance it and carry people with them.

Johnson didn’t play it like Brexit because he knew Covid is of an entirely different magnitude. Consensus building around their strategy was about sharing the blame for the enormous amount of death we’ve incurred. That approach has been blown out of the water over the last four days.

Now they are in a place they don’t want to be: forced to contradict themselves, brazenly lie to people and trash the whole approach they had put together, all in order to save their advisor.

They’re waging an offensive political strategy from the wrong side, one which targets millions of ordinary people and treats them like fools who’s lives are expendable.

Of course, they are trying to pull it onto Brexit territory in order to escape. If they can turn it into themselves vs the media they think they can regain some ground. But it’s highly unlikely that will work.

The Johnson administration seems stunned by the extent of the public, institutional and even Conservative party backlash against his exonerations of Cummings’ behaviour. He and his inner-circle had, perhaps, let their guards down in the mood of national solidarity that swept the UK in response to the virus and widespread suffering.

If so, they have badly misunderstood public sensitivities at a time of such loss and hardship – not thousands or tens of thousands but tens of millions have suspended relations with their closest friends and family. Some will never see their loved ones again.

But perhaps more theoretical error that Johnson and his allies have made is in misunderstanding how the ‘populist moment’ in western politics actually operates.

This isn’t the place to reassess the meaning of this ‘moment’, or whether the frame of ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ are really the most meaningful or useful for analysing political developments. For the purposes of this argument, let’s agree that we live in a political era, one key characteristic of which is a widespread mistrust of, and antagonism towards, politicians who represent ‘elite interests’ (including their own).

It is often a confused, hazy and scattergun mood. Sometimes it lands on deserving targets and at others can be manipulated to, and serve, reactionary ends.

But, contrary to some dubious wisdom in liberal circles, it did not originate with Trump or Brexit, nor Corbyn or Scottish independence, nor a range of other movements and personalities with which it is usually associated. It has roots deep in the disintegration of associational life, institutional cohesion and older forms of class deference. Its trajectory is long – perhaps decades old, and it has picked-up considerable momentum from world historic events including the ‘War on Terror’ and the 2008 financial crisis. It will, in all likelihood, though in unpredictable ways, be added to by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting social and economic dislocations.

And Johnson is almost certainly adding to it in spades through his pathetic handling of the Cummings affair and the wider failure of his pandemic strategy. We could be leaving lockdown facing a badly weakened foe.

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