The Politics of the Pandemic: How Covid Finally Caught up with Boris Johnson

Over the last two years, the Covid pandemic has affected the lives of every single British person. Over 150,000 have died from Covid, the initial lockdown caused the worst recession since the Great Depression and our personal freedoms were restricted to an unimaginable degree. By any objective measure, the UK is towards the bottom of the league of rich countries in terms of total Covid deaths and throughout the pandemic more people have disapproved of the government’s handling of Covid than have approved. Yet despite this poor record, in October last year the Tories still averaged a poll lead of 6% over Labour.

So why did the government’s record ultimately have so little impact on its ratings?

Right from the beginning it was clear that voters were going to treat the pandemic differently to other crises. As the virus began its unstoppable spread around the world, nearly all incumbent governments benefited from a “rally round the flag” effect, with the Tories reaching an extraordinary 53% in the polls in April 2020. Support began to drain away in the summer and by November 2020 Labour had drawn level as the government came under increasing criticism for failing to go back into lockdown soon enough. Early in 2021, the success of the vaccine rollout came to the government’s rescue and by June they were 10% ahead of Labour.

Some on the left blamed Keir Starmer’s failure to attack the government’s record on Covid more aggressively, but consistent feedback from focus groups found that swing voters disliked what criticism there was. As the virus multiplied, so did the amount and complexity of the data describing it – there are several ways of measuring deaths and cases, and at different times the UK could be doing better or worse than comparable countries. This meant that people were able to read into the numbers what they wanted to see; overwhelmingly, those who had not voted Tory in 2019 disapproved of the government’s handling of Covid, but only a small minority of Conservative voters concurred. Even when dissatisfaction with the government reached its peak in winter 2020-21, the effect was mainly to turn Conservative voters into “Don’t Knows”, rather than to switch them to another party. During the “vaccine bounce” most of these voters went straight back to the Tories again.

But if Covid did not provide the boost for Labour that some expected, neither has the pandemic divided the British public along “culture war” lines as it did in America. If attitudes towards Covid had been strongly related to Brexit vote, Labour’s slightly more hawkish stance on lockdowns might have cost it even further support among the same kinds of voters it lost in GE2019. Remainers were slightly more likely to support lockdowns, but there was relatively little difference between the attitudes of Remain and Leave voters; overwhelmingly both groups supported restrictions. Older people were most in favour of Covid strict measures (unsurprisingly given that Covid poses a particular threat to the elderly), but this is also the group most likely to have voted Leave.

Of course, in the end Covid has shifted the dial on the government’s popularity, not because of  incompetence but because Johnson appears to have broken his own rules by partying his way through lockdown. This could seem a disappointingly trivial reason for a collapse in support, but it points to a wider problem for the Conservatives and to a deep disconnect between Tory MPs and the people who voted for them. Although there was little difference between attitudes to Covid restrictions based on cultural values, data from the British Election Study shows that at the height of the pandemic, people with more economically right-wing attitudes (e.g. who disagreed with statement such as “Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off”) were more likely to prioritise individual freedoms and preventing economic damage, over public health.

Tory MPs are much more economically right-wing than their voters (whereas, most of the Labour to Conservative switchers in 2019 are quite left-leaning) and so were always more likely to be uncomfortable with Covid restrictions than the median voter. This dislike of restrictions led to the most catastrophic and avoidable mistake of the pandemic – the delay in going back into lockdown in the winter of 2020, which went against both scientific advice and public opinion, and resulted in a huge wave of Covid mortality at the beginning of 2021. In December 2021 Tory MPs again found themselves at odds with public opinion when over 100 of them voted against “Plan B”, despite popular support for the measures.

“Partygate” owes a great deal to Boris Johnson’s particular personal failings (it is difficult to imagine another senior Conservative behaving in such a reckless and mendacious way), but what it has in common with many of the mistakes during the pandemic is that they both stem from the economic right’s instinctive dislike of rules. The Conservatives’ core voters, who tend to be older and more socially conservative than average, are not only the group most supportive of Covid rules but also most likely to be critical of people who disregard them.

Even if many Conservative voters were prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt of their handling of Covid, the flagrant rule-breaking during lockdown plays into a long-running suspicion that the Tories are out for themselves rather than being on the side of ordinary people. The effect of political scandals can be short-lived once they are out of the headlines, but their legacy can live on if they confirm an existing narrative. Even if Conservative MPs finally rediscover their ruthlessness and defenestrate Boris Johnson, they may find their brand has already been permanently damaged.