British political history teaches us that the job of prime minister is more difficult for some incumbents than for others. Some prime ministers enter office at a difficult moment in political time or find their best laid plans scuppered by events, while others find a clear path to implementing their chosen policies. Boris Johnson, now facing the epochal challenge of the coronavirus, has been dealt a difficult hand. He somehow needs to find a way to govern through this crisis and come out the other side in a strengthened position.
When prime ministers are dealing with a crisis, they must decide whether, when and where to act. It’s very common for political leaders in difficult circumstances to either seek to delay taking action in the hope that the crisis subsides, or to offload responsibility so that, even if it doesn’t, the government avoids some of the blame.
In the present conjuncture, with so many lives at risk, there was virtually no prospect of Johnson either delaying action or offloading responsibility. As the number of COVID-19 cases spiralled, and the easy transmissibility of the virus became clear, the government soon faced overwhelming pressure to act.
Deciding on the narrative
Where the government does have greater scope of action is in how the crisis is narratively framed. Narrative framing is crucial in determining the political consequences of crises. It’s particularly central to determining whether or not a crisis ends up being widely perceived as emblematic of deep-rooted problems with the existing political order.
David Cameron was able to legitimise nearly a decade of austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis by framing it as “Labour’s debt crisis”, for example. This was despite the fact that the steep rise in public debt was mainly a consequence of bank bailouts that had cross-party support.
The question, therefore, is how Johnson can frame the coronavirus crisis so as to minimise its impact on his governing agenda.
The crucial consideration, at least in the near term, is government culpability. A successful strategy would frame the crisis as something that happened to the government rather than something the government caused or exacerbated through inaction, blunders or recklessness. This could partly be achieved by focusing attention on the global nature of the problem. Brown did similar when he framed the 2008 financial crisis as a global problem demanding a global response.
The government might also find it expedient to deflect blame for its handling of the crisis by putting the spotlight on China and questioning how it handled the initial outbreak of the virus. This would mark a significant shift in foreign policy from the Cameron years, when China was courted as a future major trading partner.
It would, though, reinforce the narrative that the coronavirus crisis was “imported” and serve to align Britain even more closely with the US. This may become increasingly important over the coming years, if the liberal international order, and the form of globalisation of which it was a handmaiden, fractures under coronavirus-related strains.
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s Labour will undoubtedly seek to focus attention on the mistakes made by the government. The new party leader is already raising questions about why lockdown wasn’t imposed sooner and why it has taken so long to provide enough personal protective equipment to NHS staff. Starmer is also pushing hard to suggest the testing regime in place in the first weeks of the crisis was inadequate.
After the health crisis
These are issues likely to be explored in detail in the inevitable future public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus. For now, however, the government has formulated a response that is the diametric opposite of its Brexit strategy – one that is based on foregrounding medical and scientific experts.
This may increase public buy-in for its coronavirus policies. The strategy is also politically helpful because it gives the government a ready-made excuse for any mistakes. The government’s daily press briefings have given a rotating cast of experts equal billing with whichever cabinet minister has been put forward that day, providing them with human shields for difficult press questions.
The coronavirus could lead to lasting political change, with implications for everything from Britain’s current economic model to the size and scope of the state. What will go a long way to determining whether this happens is if government failings come to be seen as mistakes of the moment or as rooted in key features and priorities of the existing political order. Austerity and then Brexit, for example, both arguably deprived Britain of the ability to fully prepare for emergencies of this kind, both in terms of resources and political will.
This is one of the reasons why the government is likely to be unwilling to respond to the economic ravages of the coronavirus with another bout of austerity. That most of the Conservatives’ seat gains at the recent general election came in areas of the Midlands and northern England least able to absorb further spending cuts is another. What this will mean for the viability of the UK’s public finances in the long run is uncertain. However, perhaps the truly important political consequences of the coronavirus crisis will lie elsewhere.
The crisis has the potential to alter public perceptions of what the British state can and should do. A sustained period of high unemployment and economic dislocation are set to follow in the near future. But they will be combined with the current ongoing experiment in universal basic income prompted by coronavirus. Add to that the rolling series of bailouts on offer to struggling industries and quasi-nationalisations, and neoliberal politics-as-usual may finally no longer be tenable.