The government’s adamance that it is responding appropriately to the school concrete crisis is surprising. The reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) used to construct hundreds of public buildings is, despite the government having been warned multiple times of its fragility, crumbling. Its response may remind some of the timid gentleman in a brown suit from the Eighties film Naked Gun asking crowds to disperse as the building behind him is in flames. And with reports that the dangerous concrete may be confined not just to schools but to NHS hospitals too, the debacle could come to define the government in the worst way possible.
A broad perception of competence is essential to winning elections. If you’re struggling to achieve that, at least try to win by trumping your opponents (as Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron did to varying degrees). Win on competence and you’re winning over a sea of voters who trust you with keeping the lights on, managing the books and guaranteeing stability and security to those who need it.
Failing to ensure that parents can safely send their children to school is something that may endure in the public imagination.
At present, the national polls point to a comfortable Labour victory, and Keir Starmer’s party also leads on the most defining competence issue: the economy (by 40 per cent to 30 per cent). It is Labour’s best performance on this metric since 2001, the year it achieved its second landslide victory under Tony Blair.
Note, though, that the Conservatives’ 30 per cent still equals its score from 2005. Will school and hospital safety fears will change that?
We don’t, however, know to what extent the public is tuning into this story. If it isn’t, expect minimal change in national poll numbers. Stories that capture the public imagination need to last beyond a week-long news cycle. We’re still only a few days into the Raac concrete story.
If the public is already tuning in, we need to consider a second, more obvious, unknown. How will the government respond, or, more precisely, how will its response be perceived? If it can convince voters that it has done the best anyone could have done in the circumstances then the issue will be neutralised (a not insignificant share of the public have been willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt over Covid-19 and the inflation spike).
But if ministers are seen to have failed, and the story follows the government for weeks, if not months, the result is a perception that could prove the hardest to reverse: an inability to manage the very basics of governing.