How Boris Johnson squandered the support he enjoyed from the Tory press
Political honeymoons are often short lived, but few prime ministers have squandered media loyalty and support as rapidly and as comprehensively as Boris Johnson. Dominic Cummings’ forced departure has paved the way for the launch in the New Year of White House-style televised briefings from Downing Street by Allegra Stratton, who is to become the new face of the government.
Once Johnson’s most slavish supporters in the popular press started to line up to question his competence and leadership, exacerbating unease in his parliamentary party, a shake-up in public relations could no longer be avoided. Tabloid editors, who had loyally backed the prime minister in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, realised the scale of their misjudgment and accepted they could no longer fool their readers.
Blame for repeated catastrophic blunders and chaotic confusion over rules on social distancing was placed firmly at the door of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues – and Johnson’s infamous adviser was one of the top targets.
For many Conservative MPs, a second U-turn after Downing Street’s pointless renewed opposition to the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford for extending free school meals, marked the end of the road for Cummings and his closest henchman Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications. Their aggressive tactics of whacking public service broadcasters, civil servants, scientists et al had suited the news agenda of Conservative newspapers, but the mood of the country had changed once the easing of the summer gave way to an autumn blizzard of grim headlines.
For too long, editors had chosen to ignore the extent to which Cummings was becoming a hate figure among vast swathes of the population who had sacrificed so much to follow the guidelines and who would ultimately hold Johnson accountable. Several diversionary tactics helped to deflect some of the newspapers’ fury and the BBC remained a regular kicking post amid rising anger over a hotchpotch of tiered restrictions and then the renewed gloom of a second lockdown.
“Put the boot into the woke BBC to cheer us all up, Boris” was the cry of the Sunday Telegraph’s Julie Burchill. She rallied her fellow columnists to urge the government to bring about “a brisk defunding, of the self-righteous BBC” and provide some “savage amusement till this nightmare before Christmas is over”.
Allison Pearson, from the Daily Telegraph, who never misses an opportunity to castigate the BBC, called on TV news to stop its “shroud-waving” news coverage from hospitals and start to acknowledge that “the reporting of a virus from which 99.6 per cent of people make a full recovery should be kept in proportion”. Pearson’s rage against the broadcasters, mirroring Donald Trump’s assault on the fake news of the mainstream media, only served to highlight the presentational failings of Johnson and his ministers – and the government’s desperate need to be more engaging, and believable, when communicating via television and radio.
Allegra Stratton’s appointment as Downing Street press secretary, which became a catalyst for Cummings’ grudging exit, was a recognition that the provocative free-wheeling campaigning days of the Brexit Boys were over. Reluctance to face up to the cumulative damage inflicted by Cummings’ regime had eroded Johnson’s standing among Conservative MPs; his authority had tanked, as had his personal rating in the opinion polls.
Cummings’ breach of lockdown regulations by driving his family to Durham – and then visiting Barnard Castle supposedly to test his eye-sight – was the moment Johnson should have acted, but he had convinced himself he could bluster his way through.
From the start, the Tory tabloids were resolute in their support. After the Daily Mirror’s Saturday morning exclusive – “Dominic Cummings investigated by police after breaking coronavirus lockdown rules” – the Mail on Sunday’s front page splashed on Johnson rejecting calls for his adviser to quit: Boris: “It’s not like he was visiting a lover”.
Public anger at a flagrant breach of the rules, coupled with contempt for Johnson’s attempt to excuse his chief adviser’s behaviour, was channelled briefly by the Daily Mail the following Monday: ‘What planet are they on?’ Two mugshots filled the Daily Mirror’s front page above the headline, “A cheat and a coward”.
Nonetheless, there was no instant hue and cry from the rest of the Tory press, and loyalty to Johnson won the day: “Defiant Boris stands by his man” (Daily Express); “He has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity” (Daily Telegraph).
Cummings’ lame excuses next day, delivered in the Downing Street garden, were greeted with incredulity by the Daily Mirror, “No regrets, no apology”. But Johnson had escaped yet again: his tabloid cheerleaders were already switching their focus to a predicted easing of lockdown and the comfort of a flurry of ‘good news’ headlines. “High street to re-open as UK edges back to normality” declared the Daily Telegraph. An ‘Open for business’ sign filled The Sun’s front page.
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Through the early summer, the tabloid narrative was dominated by storylines that encouraged a countrywide determination to enjoy the summer holiday and take advantage of falling infection rates. As the government stumbled from one crisis to another, front pages increasingly sounded the alarm over scandalous shortages of protective equipment and the chaotic roll-out of testing. ‘How many more coronavirus fiascos?’ asked the Daily Mail, as the U-turns began to multiply.
Johnson was about to be deserted by Tory titles that had backed him to the hilt on Brexit and aided and abetted his smash-and-grab take-over of Downing Street. “You Dunces!” declared the Daily Mail, under pictures of Johnson and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who were blamed for the mishandling of A-level school exam results.
After yet another inevitable U-turn, allowing teachers’ recommendations to be followed, the Daily Mail’s front page mocked up Johnson and Williamson as Laurel and Hardy above the headline, “Another Fine Mess” and The Sun marked them both F for ‘Farce’.
Contempt for government ineptitude was about to give way to despair amid warnings of a second lockdown. “Britain is doomed to bankruptcy with so-called leaders who have fear in their eyes” was the grim assessment of The Sun’s cheerleader-in-chief, Trevor Kavanagh, whose doom-laden prose was taken a step closer to the edge by Leo McKinstry at the Daily Express, ‘The time has come to give the country a Covid Coalition’.
Conservative MPs were in revolt at the prospect of renewed restrictions. If a second lockdown had to be extended even further, the Mail on Sunday was ready to think the unthinkable: ‘It’s curtains for Boris, the Tories – and for Britain’.
Shored up by a conviction that in the end Conservative-supporting newspapers always rallied to his support, Johnson was ready to take another risk with public opinion by rejecting the finding that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had broken the ministerial code by conduct in the Home Office that had “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.
Holed up in Downing Street, and again having to quarantine, the prime minister left it to cabinet colleagues to speak in her support. “Stick up for the Prittster” was The Sun’s page two response, echoing Johnson’s order to MPs to ‘form a square around The Prittster’. But with the exception of fellow Brexiter, Patrick O’Flynn (Daily Express) – “Boris right to stick with Priti and snub Chinless Wonders” – most columnists steered clear of getting drawn into a dispute about bullying behaviour.
Johnson’s political career had been built on his expertise in currying favour with the Tory press. Years of favourable treatment have given him a false sense of security. The fragility of that relationship has been tested almost to the limit by the Covid-19 shambles and the collateral damage of the Cummings’ regime.
Allegra Stratton must be counting her good fortune that her debut in front of the cameras did not require her to front up an explanation for Ms Patel’s prime ministerial pardon and a defence of the indefensible. She will be hoping when she is in post that the Tory press once more rally behind them in the months ahead.
This piece originally appeared as an article in the winter edition of Media North, available via their website. Nicholas Jones was an industrial and political correspondent for the BBC until he left in 2002. He has written a number of books including Strikes and the Media (1986) and Soundbites and Spin Doctors: How Politicians Manipulate the Media (1995).
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