The consensus among the commentariat is that Britain’s leaders benefited from an ‘incumbency effect’ last Thursday, with voters rewarding those parties that have been in power during the pandemic and punishing those that haven’t. Does this mean the cause of lockdown scepticism is a busted flush? Anti-lockdown candidates were trounced wherever they stood. Leo Kearse, who ran against Humza Yousaf in Glasgow Pollock on behalf of the Reclaim Party, got just 114 votes.
But before we fold up our tent and go home, it’s worth pausing to consider the advantage that the incumbent, pro-lockdown parties had. For one thing, Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford were able to spend tens of millions of pounds – in Boris’s case, hundreds of millions – on ads to encourage people to comply with their social distancing policies. Ostensibly apolitical, which is why taxpayers’ money could be spent on them, these ads indirectly endorsed the approach these leaders have taken to managing the pandemic. After all, an ad telling you how important it is to wear a mask on public transport may not be an explicit invitation to vote for the politician that introduced mask mandates, but the subtext is that the politician in question made exactly the right call – he or she is saving lives by insisting we all wear masks. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the governments of all three nations are buying up space across the media, including in newspapers, and paying ‘rate card’, i.e. full whack, which no other advertisers do. Not that there have been many other advertisers for the past year, at least not for concerts or films or exhibitions. That will have created a powerful financial disincentive for editors to criticise the lockdowns or the politicians that introduced them.
The same sleight of hand – messaging that on the face of it is apolitical, but has the indirect effect of boosting political incumbents – was in evidence during the televised ‘briefings’ that have dominated media coverage of the pandemic – in Nicola Sturgeon’s case, daily briefings until a few weeks ago. Indeed, Sturgeon suspended her daily briefings during the Scottish election campaign on the grounds that they could give the SNP an unfair advantage over the other parties, more or less acknowledging that she’s reaped a political dividend from giving them. Needless to say, Ofcom dismissed complaints earlier in the year that Sturgeon was using her daily briefings to promote her political standing.
To see how this worked in Boris’s favour, take the Government’s relentless pro-NHS propaganda. Nothing overtly political about every senior member of the Government from the Prime Minister on down praising the NHS, urging people to protect the NHS, telling the public how lucky we are to have the wonderful NHS. But scratch the surface and of course it’s political. This is a Conservative Government disabusing the public of any suspicion they might have that the NHS isn’t safe in Tory hands, which, for decades, has been the Party’s biggest political weakness, ruthlessly exploited by Labour at every opportunity. Not safe? Au contraire, general public. We love the NHS. We want to protect and nurture the NHS. In fact, we are the true custodians of the NHS.
And don’t doubt for a second that this was a cold, political calculation. It was Dominic Cummings, after all, who came up with the slogan: “Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS.” That’s the same Dominic Cummings who put the NHS front and centre of the Leave campaign – remember the £350 million a week we would be able to spend on new hospitals after we’d left the EU? Dom will have realised that every time the Prime Minister appeared on the television standing behind a podium bearing that slogan he was boosting the Tories’ electoral chances. The Downing Street press briefings, so slavishly covered by the BBC, ITV, Sky News and Channel 4, were misnamed. They should have been called Party Political Broadcasts for the Conservative Party.
Not that Keir Starmer is blameless. The problem with a national crisis, from the opposition’s point of view, is that normal political life is suspended and all the party leaders are supposed to rally round the Prime Minister. But did Starmer have to be quite so supine in his support of the Government’s decision to impose three lockdowns? His ‘opposition’ consisted of urging Boris to lock down sooner than he did – which, if you think about it, is a tacit endorsement of the policy, effectively acknowledging that Boris got the one big decision of his premiership spot on. Starmer’s position for over a year has been: Really good decision Prime Minister, exactly right, well done. Little wonder he hasn’t had much cut through with the general public. He might as well be another member of the Cabinet.
So, yes, the incumbents probably did get a boost from their handling of the pandemic, but not because they handled it well. They got a boost because they spent hundreds of millions pounds of taxpayers’ money telling the electorate they were doing exactly what they should be doing to keep us safe, and opposition politicians, as well as the mainstream media, enthusiastically endorsed their approach.
At one point I hoped that when life returns to normal, the furlough scheme ends and the catastrophic damage of the lockdowns becomes apparent, the public might begin to question whether Boris, Nicola, et al. did in fact make the right call. Could that create an opportunity for a well-organised anti-lockdown party with a charismatic leader to start building support? But given the boost the incumbents have got from the crisis, it’s clearly in their interests to extend it for as long as they can, which means ‘normal’ may still be some distance away. Oh, and the Government has just agreed a contract with a media buying agency to spend a further £320 million of taxpayers’ money on pro-Boris propaganda. So don’t expect a revolt any time soon. There will be a reckoning, but it will be some time coming.