EPA/Will Oliver

We should look closely at Britain’s decision to elect a man so renowned for his untrustworthiness

In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore.

This is at least partly because Brexit has deepened the crisis of trust. The 2019 election was always going to be about Brexit – and not only because some people would vote according to where they stood on the matter. It was also because the emotional turbulence initiated by the 2016 referendum continues to dominate national politics in a more general way.

And in that turbulence, the issue of trust is centre stage. Beyond Leave and Remain, distrust – in the parties, their manifestos and leaders – has been a major theme threading through all other issues. The central question put by BBC journalist Andrew Neil when challenging Boris Johnson to face him in an interview was whether he can be trusted.

Some votes will have been “trust” votes, cast solely on the basis of who can be trusted to get Brexit done, or who can be most trusted to prevent it. But elsewhere on the election battlefield, the status of trust itself has been put at stake.

To take the measure of this, we need firstly to look more closely at trust. In politics, it can mean trust in a politician’s competence. That is, in essence, a morally neutral judgement. So-and-so may be a nice person, but they are not up to the job. More often, and more profoundly, though, it means whether a politician can be trusted to speak truthfully. And more broadly it can refer to how responsibly an individual behaves.

Even many Labour voters don’t rate their leader as trustworthy. Neil Hall/EPA

These are moral judgements of the utmost significance. So it suggests that British democracy is in some moral jeopardy, when the leaders of the two major parties, the only likely candidates for the premiership, were rated so low on trustworthiness by the public, including supporters of their own party. For example, according to one YouGov poll, 53% of respondents thought Johnson untrustworthy, while for Corbyn the figure was 57%.

These dismal figures are not pure judgements of the two men as individuals, as they are influenced by party affiliation. Yet in a recent Survation poll, even among Conservative voters, Johnson was seen as the most trustworthy of the party leaders by only 61%, and Corbyn amongst prospective Labour voters by only 58%. These figures suggest not only seriously depleted trust but also a substantial readiness amongst voters to separate trustworthiness from electability.

No matter how many vote, representative democracy demands a basic measure of trust from its citizens. So if distrust reaches a certain level, the system as it is must become unworkable. It must then either be replaced, by who knows what, or morph into a cynical imitation of itself.

Reading the result

It is not clear whether the prominence of trust around this election has come about because its decay is simply commanding our attention, or whether it reflects our concern at its weakness and our efforts to revive it. In any event, when trust is a central issue, voters are very likely to be more influenced by their impression of individual party leaders, since although political parties and institutions can in a real sense be trusted, psychologically the ultimate object of trust is a person.

And here we find that despite their deep unpopularity with large swathes of the public, both Johnson and Corbyn have (in very different ways) attracted highly enthusiastic bodies of trusting support. And had Nigel Farage not withdrawn so many of his candidates, the Brexit Party could have done well by his surprising ability to serve, for large numbers of people, as their chosen object of trust.

There is no real paradox here, however. A lack of trustable people creates insecurity, and in this anxious environment some people will want to convince themselves, whatever the evidence, that they have found a trustworthy leader. But in IpsosMORI’s “favourability” measure Johnson’s 16% lead over Corbyn amongst the wider public is not because he is more widely trusted – as noted above, his lead on that count is very slender, and is in spite of his perceived untrustworthy qualities.

This, then, was the trust election, in the sense that its main long-term significance will be in what it has told us about the present and future state of political trust. On that front, the most significant outcome may not be the seats won by the competing parties, but the national profile as expressed in the popular vote, and what it tells us about whether trust matters.