The main story in the news this past week has been the Dominic Cummings’ fiasco (as well as the response to that controversy) and a corresponding drop in support for the Conservative Party. Many have tied the two events together, arguing that the decision not to let go of the Senior Adviser, who arguably broke the rules of the lockdown, has lost the fundamental trust in the Government bestowed by the public. This conclusion, however, misses the broader picture, which is that the public in the United Kingdom is coming to realise that their Government has grossly mishandled its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of April, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked respondents to a poll a fairly straightforward question: has the UK Government handled this crisis well, yes or no? Then, a majority of 51% of respondents said yes, while 41% said no. These supportive numbers came in spite (or maybe because) of the UK Prime Minister himself spending a week in April in intensive care, having contracted the very virus against which he had sought to protect his nation.
On Wednesday this past week, one month onwards, we prompted this question again. On this occasion, 36% said yes, and 53% said no!
This is a significant shift in perception.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s overall approval rating has gone down, his approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus crisis specifically is now in the negative. On Wednesday, 44% of respondents disapproved of it, while just 37% approved. This result is dramatically different from the 14th of April, when the approval rating for Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was at 59% with 21% disapproving. These numbers thus represent a swing from +38% to -7%.
Even among 2019 Conservative voters (which you can see by clicking the chart above), there has been a significant drop in approval from 76% approving of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis in mid-April to 57% approving this past Wednesday –– a nearly 20% drop in approval among the Prime Minister’s own supporters.
This dramatic change is unsurprising when set in the context of the data in the United Kingdom, which has the highest death toll from coronavirus in Europe. When the country had surpassed Italy and Spain earlier this month, the Government defended itself, saying cross-country comparisons are difficult to make due to the varying ways coronavirus deaths are counted. At that moment of time, respondents to a poll on the 15th of May did not find this explanation a valid defence.
It is likely these perceptions about the government’s handling of this crisis is not tied to the riveting news about Dominic Cummings’ decision to isolate his family in Durham. Indeed, the consensus across Europe appears to be that the United Kingdom has handled this crisis worst. In three polls last weekend in France, Germany and Italy, majorities and pluralities of respondents rated the United Kingdom’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as worse than their respective countries’ responses.
64% of Germans respondents, 44% of French respondents and 62% of Italian respondents think the United Kingdom’s Government has handled the crisis worse than their own respective governments have. Only 12% of both German and Italian respondents, as well as 17% of French respondents, think the UK Government has done a better job than their own countries.
And if that relatively better figure in France seems at all redeeming for the UK Government, that is only because our French respondents tended to also view their own Government’s response to the pandemic unfavourably.
In addition, most European respondents thought Boris Johnson had demonstrated poor leadership during the pandemic, including 57% of German respondents, 62% of Italian respondents and 45% of French respondents.
None of this is to say that the Dominic Cummings’ revelations from this past week is irrelevant to this broader story. A considerably strong majority of respondents did think that he had broken the rules of the lockdown in deciding to isolate his family in Durham.
Even more respondents thought his given reason for travelling to Barnard Castle was not valid.
But the Cummings affair is not quite the central story of this past week. When asked whether or not the Dominic Cummings’ story was important to them, a majority of respondents in fact said no, it was not important (even as most respondents reported having followed it in the news).
Respondents even tended to agree more than disagree that those calling for Cummings to lose his job are somewhat or even mostly motivated by the role he played in the 2016 EU referendum. In other words, a plurality of respondents believed that the staunchest voices calling for Cummings’ resignation are those who simply dislike him anyways.
Rather, the central story of this past week concerns competence. Here, the Cummings story is relevant only to the extent that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown himself to be extraordinarily reluctant to let his Senior Adviser go. When prompted with a statement suggesting Boris Johnson was afraid of running the Government without Cummings’ help, a majority of respondents indicated that they agreed.
If a Government is largely seen as not having handled a major, national crisis well, such perceptions can be dangerous. Trust in a government is a precious, hard-earned thing.
Of course, the Prime Minister is certainly within his rights to believe that Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham was forgivable. After all, the local police in Durham concluded that Mr. Cummings did not break the rules in isolating his family at the cottage on his parents’ farm and only ‘might have’ broken the rules of the lockdown in his trip to Barnard Castle. To the Prime Minister, the importance of Mr. Cummings’ work may also be worth weathering this public relations’ hit.
Yet, this latest story is only part of a broader challenge to this Government. Is this Government capable of serving and protecting its people? At this moment, the answer from the public in our poll this past week appears to be no. With the honeymoon period of their landslide victory in December 2019 now certainly over, the Prime Minister and his Senior Adviser certainly have their work cut out for them.