It is eighty years since Winston Churchill became wartime Prime Minister. His “blood, toil, tears and sweat” marked decisively the turning point in the war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany. How ironic that wartime language has become the norm now with the “battle to defeat the virus” phrase common parlance.
The analogy of a silent war against a hidden enemy continues to hold. Yet in the background another battle is taking place. At present the news establishment is at war with Boris. In normal times this would not matter. But the conflict in which the Press is engaging has major consequences, influencing Government policy in a wholly detrimental manner. This proxy war is being waged by a resentful media, punishing Boris Johnson for his landslide victory at the December general election and as unexpected for a politician, delivering his Brexit promise a few weeks later.
Boris was always either going to be the Prime Minister for ten weeks or for ten years. And with a majority of this size… Brexit could just be the start.
Laura Kuenssberg, BBC
A documentary made just after the general election, “The Brexit Storm Continues”, closed with host Laura Kuenssberg visibly deflated with the outcome of events. She opined “…Boris was always either going to be the Prime Minister for ten weeks or for ten years. And with a majority of this size …Brexit could just be the start”. The inflection of her voice and resigned demeanour spoke a thousand words alone.
Just a few months later the stick needed to deliver some hefty blows on the Government appeared suddenly. Coronavirus provided the perfect opportunity to enact revenge and bring to ground a Government riding high in the opinion polls.
There can be few qualms Boris has made avoidable errors during his campaign against Covid-19. Why was the lockdown-easing speech made on Sunday 10th May, rather than Thursday 7th May as promised? Why was the detailed guidance not released until twenty four hours after the speech? Why did Boris say the guidance should begin on Monday morning when the document itself specified Wednesday? Why has the Prime Minister continued to send out the same small group of charisma-free Ministers to sell the policy? Why is the Press Briefing still being held daily? Why do journalists continue to be allowed to ask “follow-up” questions on topics entirely unrelated to their previous questions? Why are the five tests trotted out at every press conference as though the British public are idiots? All avoidable.
Despite these mistakes few could argue the Government faces monumental difficulties. Never before in modern times has a fledgling administration been faced with solving a health crisis of such magnitude. To think it would be easy to “defeat” Covid-19 would be at best disingenuous and at worst hubris. Yet the Conservative party under Boris has allowed itself to fall into the traps laid by the media each day in their relentless crusade to kneecap this Government at every available opportunity.
The Evening Standard this week published an article claiming “Sir Keir Starmer overtakes Boris Johnson in approval ratings”. The headline was writ large and spelled out “the new normal” – Boris’s huge poll lead had been built on sand and had crumbled. Yet reading the piece itself told another story. The Prime Minister’s approval rating was still at 57% compared to the new Opposition leader at 40%. One does not have to pass GCSE Maths to calculate this gave Boris a lead of 17%. Nonetheless George Osborne, a perennial Boris enemy, had decided to use “net approval” as his yardstick, primarily as this delivered the headline he craved. With Boris recording a disapproval rating of 35% compared to Sir Keir at 17%, the Labour leader netted +23%, one percentage point ahead of the Prime Minister on +22%. Game, set and match to George Gideon Osborne. Other papers have followed suit. When even that beacon of Conservative support, the Daily Telegraph, is plastering pictures of Keir Starmer all over its front cover, and praising him in their editorials with undiluted adulation, you know something is awry.
Who knows what might have happened had Boris been at the helm throughout? Perhaps we might have seen less of the ineptitude demonstrated by his cabinet ministers. Who was in charge to castigate the various Ministers as they got caught in cross fire on the Today programme, were crushed by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain or fell foul even of the usually genial Philip Schofield on This Morning? With Boris fighting for his life in an ICU bed, one assumes Dominic Cummings was also side-lined. It is hard to believe he would have allowed the car crash in slow motion unfolding before our eyes.
Consequently the media has so far succeeded in sowing the seeds of doubt into a previously staunchly supportive electorate. Boris’s absence allowed them to outflank his team and turn the screw. Just as in the referendum, when Continuity Remain lingered on the Brexit battlefield long after the Leave campaign had tasted victory and departed, so the Press now sat quietly, waiting for its opportunity to pounce. Few expected it might arrive so expeditiously.
Media outlets chose their strategy carefully. Having spent years accusing Boris of selling off the NHS to private suppliers, they were quick to reprimand him for Britain not having a private diagnostics industry to fall back on with antigen testing. For weeks they scolded the Prime Minister for not implementing lockdown, yet as soon as he did, the Press lambasted him for wrecking the economy. They were swift to move on to the NHS being potentially overwhelmed and even swifter to train their sights on care homes when it was clear NHS beds were still in plentiful supply. Each time the Government, by now missing its magnetic leader, remained reactive rather than proactive, stumbling into each trap like a drunkard in a mine field. The Press wielded their stick with ever more substantial hits. At the daily Briefings journalists continue to trot out the same tired questions on Brexit and whether the Government will extend the transition period. Their aggrieved strategy could not be more transparent.
The dilemma for the Prime Minister has been worsened by an absent House of Commons for much of the crisis. The daily press briefing has taken over as a surrogate Parliament. Ministers doggedly repeat the same mantra every day, thus alienating exponentially their previous supporters. In the absence of Westminster, journalists portray themselves as the instrument to hold the Government to account. In actuality they are simply refighting old battles.
Boris has chosen well the text books to consult in his recovery and must surely analyse his old hero once again. Churchill fought valiantly throughout World War II and avoided many of the traps planted by the enemy. He was a master of military strategy whereas the Government knows next to nothing about virology. Even with his ultimate great victory, Churchill lost the ensuing general election as the electorate decided they aspired to something different. Never again to return to the pre-war health according to wealth.
With a serious Opposition forming for the first time in a decade, Boris must manoeuvre proactively, not dance to the perpetual tune of the media. If not, how suddenly in this pantomime his political future could be behind him.
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