Kimberley Mannion attempts to read between the lines of Johnson’s classical references, metaphors, and verbal diarrhoea, to understand what is really going on.
Boris Johnson is known for many things, but being a “details man” is not one of them. When he became prime minister last summer, no one could have imagined that in six months time he would be navigating the nation through a crisis to the scale of Covid-19. But “the boy who wanted to be world king” cannot choose their battles, and different battles demand different approaches.
Johnson’s tenure has been an extraordinary one already. The first half was dominated by Brexit with his simple promise to “Get Brexit Done” winning him a landslide majority in the 2019 general election and the sense of victory he seems to crave more than the average person (Brexit is of course not really “done” though). Au contraire to the simplification of the biggest constitutional change our generation will see to three-word slogans, Covid-19 has seen the Johnsonian language evolve to more classical references, metaphors, and some utter verbal diarrhoea at the daily press briefing – that is, when he cares to grace us with his prime ministerial presence. While watching, one wonders how he can say so much yet say nothing at all.
At first glance, Brexit and Covid-19 do not appear to have much in common. The former concerns a small island breaking away from the world’s largest trading block in the name of “sovereignty” and “control” and the latter is a deadly virus sweeping the world, ironically taking back the control of said island to function how it sovereignly wishes to. Discourse is more important than ever in politics, though, and its power has been highlighted by both issues.
The NHS is something distinctively British, of which the country is proud and protective, so naturally, it is attractive to our leader to use as a discursive tool. In 2016, we were inspired to vote to leave the EU by a bus which claimed it would “give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week”. As we all well know, this £350m turned out to be phoney after votes had been cast. Four years on, we are to forget the false promise which Johnson was the face of, and clap for the NHS every week, listen without scepticism as he recites to us his gratitude for an EU nurse who cared for him.
Every crisis needs a dramatic metaphorical backdrop to reference when you don’t have many details to give, at least in Johnsonian communications. And so his Churchillian moment came, following in the footsteps of his hero, to lead the nation through his own second world war. The idea of the country needing to come together for a “war” and do our civil duty, just as our great predecessors did, although fighting on the front line was a bit of a greater sacrifice than staying at home, is a powerful one. Enemy forces on the front line also do not tend to spare someone from their wrath if they are proclaimed a genius who is above the norm, unlike Dominic Cummings in this particular “war”. This strategy has not always gone down well, though, with medical workers and Covid-19 patients alike expressing distaste in the rhetoric which hails them as “heroes” or their time ill with the virus a “battle”, suggesting the thousands perished “lost their battle” or simply did not “fight” as hard as those who “won”.
At times, it seems Johnson believes he cannot communicate with the public like adults, but instead must choose between reducing complex situations to three-word slogans like “Get Brexit Done” or “Take Back Control” or fill a press conference with gibberish like “we are coming over what could have been a vast peak, as though we have been going through some huge Alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and the pastures ahead of us…” In a time of crisis, most people want clear information, not metaphorical references that were better used back in Oxford classics than a vital public health address.
Johnson’s approval rating has fallen considerably from the moment he took to the podium as world king from December 13 until now. That is probably down to general handling of the crisis which led us to have to worst death toll in the EU, but criticism of unclear communications throughout will not have helped. World leaders whose ratings have fared best and have received most international praise are those who addressed their public like grown-ups, such as Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel. This is a crisis unlike anything we have ever seen – governments cannot be expected to be perfect but they can communicate clearly and admit fault.
Despite having not even been in the job for a year, Johnson has already led two of the biggest events of our lifetime. His communications strategy of Brexit, playing it down to sound a lot simpler than it actually is, clearly worked on polling day. Why did the public accept such a momentous political change being dumbed down to them? Maybe through a sickening of endless political spat for the last three years, “Get Brexit Done” sounded like the best Christmas present ever. Covid-19 is different. You can choose to close your ears to endless debates over fishing waters and the single market, but a deadly virus is indiscriminate and can take anyone’s family member. People want Boris to talk straight to them. After all, as his hero Churchill once said: “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication”.