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Bill Emmott: Public trust in political leadership key in responses to COVID-19 pandemic

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

By Bill Emmott

Last December, the government of my country, the UK, looked supremely powerful and confident. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party had just won a commanding parliamentary majority in the general election held on Dec. 12. The opposition Labour Party was in disarray. Mr Johnson now seemed able not just to complete Brexit and take the UK out of the European Union but also to build his own political agenda and, in the view of most commentators, to lead Britain for the next 10 years. Yet now, six months later, things look very different. The UK government looks weak and there is even gossip in the party about removing Boris Johnson.

The reason why this British political situation is worth commenting upon is that it may offer some indications about how the various national political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic -- in the United States, in Europe, in Japan -- can be assessed. Before doing so, we should admit that all countries are only in the early stages of this crisis. It is just five months since news of the pandemic emerged from China, less than four months since it arrived in Germany and Italy (which had the first known cases in Europe), and really less than two months since the disease began to be taken seriously in both Britain and the U.S. The big economic effects still lie in the future.

Yet what we can already see is that four large European countries have suffered similarly severe impacts in terms of deaths from this coronavirus -- Italy, Spain, France and the UK -- but with different political repercussions. It is still difficult to make comparisons because each country counts COVID-19 deaths in different ways, and the true impact in terms of how many more deaths happen in total compared with previous annual averages will not be known for some time. But it is known that each of these countries had, as of May 16, suffered at least 27,000 deaths, and that Britain headed the list with 34,000. Spain has the highest per-capita death rate but Italy and Britain are close behind.

Every country that has suffered high mortality rates has made similar mistakes, usually thanks to lack of preparations and to slow political decision-making. In Italy's case, and more specifically the region of Lombardy that surrounds the country's financial and fashion capital, Milan, what also happened is that the health system became overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 patients and the severity of their sicknesses, meaning that some people died without being able to be admitted to hospital or because there were too few intensive care beds and facilities available.

So you might have expected that the public and political criticism during this health crisis would be somehow proportional to both the mortality rate and the capability of the health system to respond. But that is not what has happened. In France, President Emmanuel Macron was already unpopular before the pandemic but has become a little more popular during it. In Spain, the quite new left-wing coalition government has received strong support. In Italy, the regional governor of Lombardy, who comes from the opposition Lega party, has suffered some criticism but remains still quite popular, and both the prime minister personally (Giuseppe Conte) and the national government has become a lot more popular than before.

Britain is the exception. Certainly, in the early stages of the crisis, support for the Conservative government and for Prime Minister Johnson personally increased quite strongly. But at that time the opposition Labour Party had not yet chosen a new leader; its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had resigned following the December election defeat. Mr Johnson also drew a lot of sympathy and support when he was hospitalised with COVID-19 and was clearly quite seriously ill. But now that he is back at work and now that the opposition party has chosen a very effective new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, Mr Johnson's fortunes have declined sharply.

One cannot be exactly certain about why this has happened. Nor, given the size of the Conservatives' parliamentary majority should we exaggerate its immediate significance. Nevertheless, in opinion polls Mr Johnson's approval ratings have fallen sharply and are now below that of Labour's new leader. And even the parts of the news media that have traditionally given strong support to the Conservative Party have become quite hostile in their criticism of Mr Johnson.

Let us return to the comparison with Italy, and add a further comparison with both Japan and the U.S. What differentiates Britain and Italy is not the health outcome, which is broadly similar, but rather the level of public trust in the country's leadership in their response to this unprecedented crisis. For trust, consistency and clarity both of decision-making and of communication have proven crucial.

In Italy, the national government is seen to have shown exactly that sort of consistency and clarity. In Britain, like in the U.S., the national government has regularly changed its position, has sent confusing messages about what was happening and what the government was doing, and has not appeared to fully understand the detail about even its own policies, let alone about the health crisis. It has been so inconsistent about matters such as how many COVID-19 tests it is conducting or how much protection it is giving to the elderly in care homes that it is now widely distrusted.

In the U.S., New York State has suffered the worst health outcomes yet its governor, Andrew Cuomo, has been credited with much greater clarity and consistency than has President Donald Trump and so is more popular. In Japan, something similar may be happening: despite far fewer deaths and much less severe social restrictions, the government of Prime Minister Abe has fallen in popularity because of its inconsistent and unclear communication.

For President Trump, the test of how much this matters politically will be determined in the November presidential election. For Prime Minister Johnson, the overwhelming impression now, in the public and among political commentators, is that he is the wrong man for the job. He looks out of his depth, unable to build confidence through a clear grasp of detail or a commanding sense of leadership of public institutions. He is no Margaret Thatcher, in other words, nor a Winston Churchill. For the moment, though, he cannot easily be removed from office by his party. But if he now mismanages the economic aftermath of the pandemic, this may well happen. Politics can be a cruel and unforgiving business.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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