When Boris Johnson was elected by a sweeping majority in 2019, his ability to connect with people beyond the Tory heartlands was critical to his success. His optimistic language and charismatic, if bumbling, communication style was able to gain cut through with the electorate. What no one could have predicted at the time, though, was the impending global pandemic and the communication challenges it would present alongside this.
With both an unprecedented health crisis and economic downturn, Johnson’s 2020 communication strategy quickly became a matter of life and death. However, a natural people pleaser, Johnson has found it difficult to communicate the often-difficult decisions needed through the pandemic, preferring Churchillian rhetoric over well-timed messages grounded in detailed knowledge of the facts.
The Government’s communication approach throughout the pandemic has been marred by policy U-turns, confused messages and increasing backbench unrest – and trust in Boris has plummeted sharply as a result. YouGov research showed that just 32% of the public thinks the government is handling the coronavirus crisis well. Equally, the support base garnered for Boris throughout the Brexit negotiations seems to be dwindling – recently published stats from thinktank BritainThinks shows that the number of ‘die-hard Brexiteers’ has dropped from 35% in February to 25% at the end of the year, while a YouGov survey showed that only 24% of the public thought Boris was handling Brexit well as 2020 drew to a close.
Already in 2021, lockdown fatigue and mistrust in government messaging is seeing adherence to coronavirus restrictions falling away. So, as the government looks beyond the pandemic, clear messaging around the issues the public and businesses care about will be critical – both for the recovery of the country, and the reputation of the government.
For this to work, there must first be understanding of what these priority issues are. WA’s recent report, which polled MPs, businesses and members of the general public, found a government that may find itself out of step. For instance, levelling-up – the much-vaunted flagship priority of the government – has had a lukewarm reception. While 25% of Tory MPs view the levelling up agenda as a key priority, only 6% of businesses and 7% of the general public agreed with them.
At the same time, a perceived increase in the cost of living is a concern at the forefront for the public, yet is at risk of being overlooked by MPs, according to the research. After the three areas of broad alignment – managing Brexit, unemployment and the economic downturn – it is the next highest concern facing the public and businesses alike (24%/19%). However, this is failing to resonate with MPs, with not a single Conservative MP surveyed choosing it as a top three priority.
Interest in the government’s other focus on skills and training is also at an all-time low, with no Conservative MPs surveyed picking it as a main priority, and only 3% of Labour MPs highlighting it as a key focus for 2021, although a larger slice of the business community (10%) does see this as a priority.
There are, however, three areas on which there is universal agreement between MPs, businesses and the general public alike: managing Brexit, economic recovery, and the unemployment crisis. With four years left to run, this government still has time to reconnect with voters. If it can clearly communicate that is has listened and is addressing these priorities, the country’s collective memory of a faltering crisis communications campaign might yet be erased.