Repeated scandals have not diminished the government’s popularity
A The balance of the scandals, which hit the government in office only in mid-2019, comes to an impressive amount. Among them, Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, was illegally awarded advice. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, broke the law by breaking the building permit for a Tory donor project. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock made out with one of his advisors, breaking lockdown rules in the process. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had his apartment renovated with the help of party donors. Only the affair of Mr. Hancock led to a resignation.
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The wisdom widespread in Westminster links the decline and ultimate defeat of the Conservatives in the 1990s with a series of scandals. Yet the Labor Party’s campaign proved ineffective because of the filth in the recent local and national elections. According to YouGov polls, only a small number of highly politically active voters appeared susceptible to voting due to Tory sleaze. The government’s survey lead has remained strong. Why didn’t the mud get stuck?
One reason is that the scandals do not affect the politically uninterested. “Norms only become political issues when they reach the public consciousness,” says Lord Jonathan Evans, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL). And a scandal “only reaches the public consciousness if the media bring it there”. As a rule, newspapers like to line up scandals that tickle public interest. But the pandemic has grabbed headlines and reader attention. In addition, most of the media leans towards Tory. Labor does not have the constant lead in polls and media literacy that allowed it to win over Fleet Street in the 1990s.
And even if filth gets into the public consciousness, it doesn’t necessarily change votes. The MPs’ expense scandal in 2009 dominated the headlines, but had little impact on next year’s elections, according to a study by the political scientist couple Andrew Eggers and Alexander Fisher. In the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, voters only have one chance to express a national preference and thus weigh priorities. “Ethical standards are important to people,” says Mark Philp, chairman of the CSPL’s research committee. “But it’s not the only thing that matters to them”.
What motivates many voters, especially those who are more conservative, is competence. Scandals in the 1990s grew after the government’s reputation for economic management was shattered by Black Wednesday, Britain’s chaotic exit from the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992. The Labor government, which took office in 1997, brushed off early scandals when satisfaction with its performance was high. Most voters believe that the current government handled the pandemic well, suggesting that it could do the same. The two scandals that attracted the most attention – a strange trip to Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings, a former advisor to Mr Johnson, and Mr Hancock’s affair – coincided with polls suggesting the government’s confidence in the Pandemic policy subsided.
Finally, the opposition must seize the moment for a scandal to make a big difference. Since the poor election result in May, Labor has tried to sharpen its attacks with a new slogan: “One rule for them, another for the rest of us.” that was spent on overpriced health worker equipment that should have been used for social welfare. Your strategists hope this will shake some Tory voters.
But hammering Sleaze is a risky strategy. As he was preparing for the elections that would put New Labor in power, Tony Blair was initially reluctant to make an issue of filth, fearing that it would tarnish all politics in the public eye. Today polls show that Labor is seen as incompetent and hardly more trustworthy than the Tories. If voters who distrust politicians turn to fringe parties or give up entirely, it would do damage beyond government ratings. Conversely, eradicating corruption is one of the few things that will help restore confidence in politics, says Professor Philp. And that is not in the power of Labor, but of Mr. Johnson. ■
This article appeared in the UK section of the print edition under the heading “Sleazy do it”