Image: "Well at least we can all change our lucky underpants now..." from Dunk's Flickr PhotoStream

When I woke up on Friday 13 December 2019 to a Tory Party majority of 80, I, like many people, knew it would be dire. However, I don’t think anyone envisioned quite how bad things would get.  Johnson’s promise of  ‘sunlit meadows’ has long been forgotten.  To most outside observers, Britain is doing rather poorly at the moment.

There are currently between 30,000 to 40,000 new COVID cases and around 200 deaths a day in England – rates far worse than our European neighbours. In addition, due to Brexit, there are significant supply issues in supermarkets and factories in the UK, which may last until 2023.  And on top of all this, raw sewage is being pumped into our rivers and coastal waters. What’s more, there is the prospect of rampant inflation, the farming and fishing industry facing decimation, and many other industries facing severe staff shortages — all the while, multiple stories about how the government is corrupt continue to appear.

Perhaps the most severe threat to the country is that facing our National Health Service.  Like many other industries, the NHS is handling a growing staff crisis as hospitals struggle to fill thousands of nursing vacancies, with up to one in five posts now unfilled. As a result, there are widespread reports of ambulances queuing for hours outside emergency rooms, with some patients dying while waiting.  AS one NHS worker said of the incident:

People do die in the back of an ambulance on the way to hospital or at a scene of an incident. But no one should die in an ambulance parked outside an emergency department which can give higher level care than an ambulance. There is no dignity in that… This is the sort of thing that should never ever happen. This is exactly the sort of thing that will break staff and drive up absences or leavers and make it worse. This is not an Emergency Department problem but a symptom of a broken system.

The NHS staff shortages, and having to cope with the 18 month COVID pandemic, mean that the NHS is facing its most challenging winter yet.  Sajid Javid claims that the NHS is not under unsustainable pressures.  Yet, as the Independent reports, the evidence contradicts this claim:

Given that the country seems to be in relatively dire straits on multiple fronts begs the question about why the Tory government seems to be doing so well in the polls.  The most recent poll of polls shows the Conservatives having a lead of around four points; admittedly, this is down from a ten-point advantage during the summer.  Yet, just a few years ago, even one of these multiple crises would threaten to send the standing of a government into terminal decline.  For example, the Major government of the 90s deteriorated after allegations of ‘sleaze’ that were mild compared to the apparent corruption on display today. Likewise, support for Gordon Brown’s government began to fall after the simple act of failing to call an expected election in 2007.

To a certain extent, support for the Tories is due to the present prime minister.  And here we have to examine the two identities of the PM – there is ‘Johnson’, and there is ‘Boris’.  Johnson, the incompetent, lying, racist, would be easy to defeat – who would vote for someone like that?  But Boris is an entirely different character – he is the charismatic likeable joker who is not scared to cause the offence his followers love.  He can break the rules with impunity because his supporters see him as getting things (like Brexit) done.

It is worth reflecting on the quality of his charisma, which some have claimed Boris (Johnson) possesses.  The idea of charismatic authority was initially coined by the German sociologist Max Weber who argued that there were three types of authority: traditional, legal-rational and charismatic.  Traditional authority is legitimised by long-standing custom and practice, and with legal-rational authority, power resides in the office, not the person.  With Charismatic authority, Weber re-characterised the ecclesiastical meaning of divinely bestowed power to signify a quality that could be found within a unique individual able to persuade and inspire others.  Charismatic leaders vow to bring about change in both society but also its values.  Thus, charismatic authority is often revolutionary in that it forms an upheaval of the status quo brought about by an emotional response to the leader.  However, charismatic authority is unstable and transitory and is most effective in times of crisis.  Boris (Johnson) encapsulates some of these qualities for his followers, but also, part of being a charismatic leader would entail people having complete trust and faith in him.  But it isn’t very likely that even his most enthusiastic fans have complete trust and confidence in him.

Partly the continued support for the Tory government is down to an opposition that has failed to oppose effectively for quite some time.  This is not to dismiss the uphill struggle that the Labour Party faces under any leader – in the last 100 years, only three Labour leaders have led their party to a working majority after an election.  But it would be nice to see a little more of what an alternative to the current corruption, chaos, and incompetence might look like.   As one observer quipped after it was announced that Labour leader Kier Starmer was self-isolating because of COVID, ‘how will they tell?’

It is also the case that the Tory party might not be that popular.  At the last election, the Tories gained 43.6 per cent of the vote share, whereas 50.3 per cent of the electorate voted for parties opposed to the Tory agenda.  Similarly, most recent polls show that Johnson has a negative approval rating.  It isn’t that the government is popular. Instead, they are the least unpopular at the moment.  Yet under our flawed electoral system, a relatively unpopular party with minority support among the electorate gains an 80 seat majority and a mandate to do whatever it likes with very few checks and balances.

Will things change?  There have been plenty of moments when things could have changed: Barnard Castle; the dodgy contracts awarded to friends; the former prime minister’s Greensill involvement; or the whole sorry Owen Paterson affair.  As journalist Charlotte Ivers has said:

Political poison does not always build up step by step. Rather, it bubbles unnoticed under the surface, waiting for a tipping point at which everything boils over and comes together.

Voters could see many of the scandals associated with the Tories as background noise until something comes along, which gives a structure and narrative to the noise.  The ‘tipping point’ suddenly allows a series of incoherent and disjointed elements to fit and be organised into a coherent narrative that comes to redefine the identity of the leader or party.  After this point, everything then comes to be defined in this light. Time will tell if we have yet reached that point.