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6 May 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 4:58am

On Covid-19, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are trapped with few stories left to sell

As the UK records one of the highest death rates in the world, the government can no longer explain away the scale of the crisis. 

By Harry Lambert

Politicians succeed by simplifying complexity. The world, Dominic Cummings declared in an online opus in 2013, is increasingly transitioning from small and primitive societies to ones that are too complex for leaders to control. But politicians don’t sell you that story. They succeed by offering a narrative that is easy for voters to understand, easy for the media to cover, and easier than anything else for the government to deliver on.

Brexit, whatever becomes of it, was a story well told. It cast the EU as a leviathan from which the United Kingdom needed to escape. Margaret Thatcher told a similar story when she distilled the economic unrest and discontent of the 1970s into two rudimentary evils: the monopoly of the unions and the monopoly of nationalised industries. Break free of both and Britain would flourish.

New Labour won by meeting voters on different but equally reductive terrain. On the night of his first general election victory in May 1997, Tony Blair spoke of the “very basic things that determined whether a country succeeds or fails”: good schools and hospitals, cuts to crime, jobs for the young, industries for the future. He and his chancellor Gordon Brown proceeded to govern by target and annual report. In 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives sold the most spurious but seductively simple tale of all, reducing the complexity of the global financial crisis to an irrelevant cause: Labour’s fiscal profligacy in office. Reducing the “deficit”, we were told, was all that mattered, even though most voters did not, according to one 2011 poll, understand how it related to the national debt. Austerity (falsely) promised to fix the roof while the sun was shining, and who couldn’t understand that?

Every facile vision has its flipside. Thatcher replaced public monopolies with private oligopolies. New Labour arrested the spike in inequality by investing in public services, but did nothing to cut wealth inequality, which is more unequally distributed in the UK than income is in South Africa or Brazil. And, according to the Marmot report, the Tories’ cuts hit the poorest hardest and halted a decade of progress under Labour in cutting avoidable mortality.

Before Covid-19 hit, Boris Johnson was making slow progress on his mission beyond Brexit: the levelling-up of the UK by resuscitating left-behind cities and towns. And, having won power by running against austerity, the government faced a weakened and largely irrelevant opposition. Outside elections, majority governments hold a monopoly. That leaves any administration with a saving grace – there is no damning alternative government they can be compared against. Governments in other countries may be doing better but they are playing a different game.

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Coronavirus changes that. Every government is playing the same game. Thus far the rules are simple and inflexible: how many have died from Covid-19? Downing Street cannot escape being judged against other governments in real-time, a far more threatening prospect than abstract broadsides fired by the opposition. Cummings is, as someone who until recently worked closely with him told me, “a branding specialist”. But he cannot redefine the terms of this debate, as in most crises. Cummings cannot simplify the complexity of coronavirus: a single statistic – deaths – is more absolute than any other story he or Johnson can tell.

For the moment, government officials are taking refuge in the variability of how deaths are reported in each country, but that will not last as all nations move to measure excess deaths (increases in deaths above the national average for the past five years). Regardless, any respite from the numbers is limited; the comparisons are too damaging. On 5 May, it was reported that the UK had overtaken Italy’s Covid-19 death toll. Johnson’s government seemingly now trails only the US, whose death rate as a proportion of the population is only half as bad as the UK’s.

The figures are likely to worsen as the data on excess deaths becomes clearer. Johnson has run – when he was not in hospital – one of the worst-affected countries in the world.

The target set by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, to carry out 100,000 diagnostic tests a day by the end of April was an exemplary exercise in errant government accounting. Hancock achieved the target only by stretching the definition of testing to include dispatching one in the post – but it had wider meaning. It was an exercise in storytelling; one of what will be many attempts to wrest narrative control of a crisis the government is trapped by.

How many more deaths are acceptable as we unwind lockdown? The answer is not absolute but relative. The best guide to our future is in the actions of Paris and Berlin, Rome and Madrid. If those governments do not tolerate an increase in deaths, neither will ours. The UK is one of the worst-hit countries in the world because it initially sought only to mitigate rather than to suppress the virus. No 10 locked down late and only when it became clear that the UK would be an alarming outlier. Mitigation became politically impossible.

As long as governments continue to be universally judged on deaths directly caused by coronavirus, none will long act without the others. Johnson’s government is one of the strongest in recent history. It controls our very freedom to move. Yet it is also one of the weakest. It has little freedom to move itself. The governments of the West are in their own lockdown. They will now act in concert.

Stephen Bush is away.

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain