In the News

Boris Johnson's style of premiership and the end of covid restrictions

Mike McCartney

18th July 2021

An editorial in The Guardian is another reminder of the fact that the presidentialisation of the office of PM is a double edged sword

The pros and cons of presidential style

Professor Michael Foley over twenty years ago developed his thesis of the British presidency. This was predicated on the idea that UK leaders co-opted the tactics used by US presidents to overcome the constitutional limits on their powers, and it was only in this context could we understand the successes and failures of British Prime Ministers. Techniques included portraying themselves as outsiders, exploiting media in its myriad guises, and so on.

And then there is the quasi-Head of State thesis, where PMs will seek to make the most of opportunities to be photographed in the presence of other world leaders at international summits.

Boris Johnson has very much adopted the techniques identified in both of these approaches. In terms of the presidential thesis, Johnson has very presented himself as the outsider. The most obvious example is his image. In terms of the quasi Head of State thesis, one just needs to think back to the relentless exploitation of photo ops at the recent Cornwall summit.

So this brings us to "freedom day". Or, not, freedom day as many people are beginning to wonder. While on the one hand, you could argue there was a case for Cabinet being useful in terms of a wide variety of Johnson's Cabinet colleagues being used at the daily covid press conferences. You could, equally, argue that Johnson was using them as cannon fodder, so he wasn't having to face the music by himself. But in terms of trying to put a positive spin on the government's handling of the crisis, Johnson has definitely put himself in the spotlight in claiming success for the vaccination rollout, and the speed at which the UK (well, England) could return to something like normal life.

The final unwinding of the government restrictions was supposed to mean some sort of bonfire of rules, when the PM first announced it. But very quickly, there was backtracking on the use of facemarks. So, to critics, this is yet another example of the government's confused strategy, and part of wider mishandling of the UK's response.

As the Guardian article points out:

"The zigzagging between options, whether in respect of Brexit or the Covid-19 response, a feature, rather than a bug, in the Johnson government’s operating system. A desperate rush to drop Covid rules in England next week has only emphasised the dangers of delay and indecision in the face of a lethal, highly infectious pathogen.

People want clear, consistent signalling in a pandemic; the public cannot gauge the threat of a disease. The government has the ability to track and contain outbreaks. It is supposed to plan a collective response, providing reassurance that it will deal with the pandemic if the public stick to the rules. But from 19 July, Mr Johnson says Covid compliance will be a matter of personal responsibility. To ram the message home, the government is withdrawing pandemic safety nets. It’s making no visible effort to install ventilation systems in offices and schools. Making public health measures a matter of individual choice sends a message that they’re no longer important. There is no point in telling people to go slowly without imposing a speed limit. This messaging will just lead to more infections, hospitalisations and even deaths."

See the full article here:

This is not the space to speculate about what the future holds in terms of infection rates and hospitalisations, but after promising so much, and trying to take credit when things go well (and then benefiting from high approval ratings), the downside is that if new lockdown restrictions are imposed at some future date, it is very likely that the voting public will lay the blame solely at the door of one person, and the PM will be under severe pressure not just from the public, but his fellow Cabinet members, and his wider party.

Interesting times ahead.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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