“They came on in the same old way,” the Duke of Wellington said of the Bonaparist troops after the Battle of Waterloo, “and we saw them off in the same old way.” So the recuperating Boris Johnson might also say this evening.
Yesterday’s Sunday Times insight probe into the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus is fair enough (mostly), though the Government has issued a combative response. When a vaccine becomes available and the virus has receded, the inevitable public inquiry will take place.
It will probe past governments’ preparedness and this one’s response: masks, tests, PPE, mass immunity, lockdowns, COBRA – the lot. We’ve no doubt at all that its criticisms of all concerned will be severe. (We make only one specific prediction: the sources of scientific advice to government will be made public, and be widened.)
That being so, why is the Government’s approval rating at a record 50 per cent, according to YouGov’s tracker? True, confidence in its handling of the crisis has decreased slightly, but it stood at 52 per cent last Wednesday, by Opinium’s reckoning, which is enough credit to tide Ministers over for the time being. Why the disconnect?
The answer can only be that put by our columnist, David Gauke, last weekend: “the most prevalent media bias is the bias in favour of news. Something new must be happening. Restrictions should be tightened. Or…relaxed. They certainly shouldn’t just stay the same, because that wouldn’t be news. And the nation demands news.”
He went on to add that he is “not sure that the nation demands news”, and we think he is right. The sum of the last five years suggests that voters, having previously lost faith in politicians (expenses), the churches (child abuse), the banks (the crash) the royal family though not, repeat not, the Queen (too many examples to list) have also lost faith in the media – a point ruthlessly exploited in America by Donald Trump and buttressed by recent research.
The public may not have grasped that newspapers are currently losing sales and advertising revenue hand over fist, that the Jewish Chronicle‘s sad closure looks like the shape of things to come, or that more than two thousand journalists have temporarily lost their jobs.
And it may not understand the detail of how, in the scrabble for space and sales, a lot of less than perfect comparisons of test numbers, death rates, bed numbers and so on have found their way online and into print. Liam Fox sets out the issues in detail on ConservativeHome this morning. But voters get the general drift.
We put our hand up and concede that this site has sometimes made the same mistake, though Charlotte Gill has been doing an excellent job of debunking some of the claims made elsewhere about death rates, the state of play in Singapore, Britain’s status as a so-called outlier, and testing.
Nor are we critical of our colleagues or media outlets as a whole, most of whom are striving, as best they can against the pressure of hysterical deadlines, less to tell “truth to power” (which is not the main responsibility of our trade), but truth to their readers (which is – or should be, at any rate).
But all the evidence of the last 24 hours suggests that a stubborn residue of Remainer diehards and FBPE whingeocrats has learned nothing from its mistakes in the 2016 EU referendum and in last December’s general election.
“Boris Johnson missed Cobra meetings: now the British people will see the truth!” The cry comes from the very same people who said the very same thing about him hiding in a Leeds hospital cupboard; losing to the Supreme Court; suffering Commons defeats; messing up over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; groping Charlotte Edwards…
…Boosting a bus slogan demanding £350 million a week; writing two drafts of his key Brexit article; dismissing his affair with Petronella Wyatt as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”; publishing insults to Liverpool when he was Spectator editor. Do we really need to continue? One senior journalist on that most distinguished of magazines, the Economist, effectively accused Johnson recently of faking his Coronavirus illness (a claim he later withdrew).
And there Johnson sits this morning in Chequers, recuperating from an illness that took him to within sight of death, with a majority of 80 in the Commons in the wake of a near-landslide last year. Does he deserve to? Frankly, we flinch at some of the items in that list above. (And we say that as a supporter of his bid for the Tory leadership.)
But what we think scarcely matters. With poll ratings like his, and a public who switched off from the latest media sensation a long time ago, the Prime Minister, Vicky Pollard-like, won’t be bovverred. He won’t care whether Robert Peston messes up at a press conference or his old mucker Toby Young maunders on about the lockdown…
…Or what Alastair Campbell, relic of a now-vanished age, has to say for himself. Or about those loser Remainiacs on Twitter. Let the victims of Johnson Derangement Syndrome eat their own tails – like Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer last year; now not even in Parliament.
It may be significant that one person who has not made the mistake of simply damning the Prime Minister out of hand is the new Leader of the Opposition. Studiously, cautiously, like the careful lawyer that he is, Keir Starmer is staking out ground, setting traps: preparing for Parliament’s return next week, and for later.
Starmer isn’t wasting his time frothing into a lather about Ministerial blunders with PPE and tests. Whether he should or shouldn’t be is beside the point – which is that he knows that, if the lockdown continues as it is indefinitely, public opinion will turn on the Government. And may do anyway.
But if it does, it will be nothing much to do with the Sunday Times’ or other newspapers’ disclosures. It will be because voters are working out for themselves that home working and furloughs are about to be replaced by redundancies and business closures.
Which is why the Prime Minister is sedulously preparing to ease the lockdown gradually and stay ahead of his opponents. Most of them are not as smart as Starmer. They are carrying on in the same old way and being driven off in the same old way. And might as well have been exiled to St Helena for all that Johnson cares.