Voters punish governments that lose control. That has been one of the ruling assumptions of British politics and political commentary since the 1970s. In that infamous decade, Tory and Labour governments alike fell largely because they allowed everyday life to be seriously disrupted – first during the 1974 three-day week, then during the 1978-9 “winter of discontent”.
Boris Johnson has presided over more disruption than any prime minister for decades: in education, agriculture, construction, the courts, manufacturing, exports and imports, the hospitality industry, retail and, above all, public health policy. He has rarely been able to present himself as in control of events. And unlike the crises of the 1970s – which led to almost no loss of life – his premiership has seen tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
The pandemic has been partly responsible for the chaos, of course, and has given the government a great alibi. But Johnson’s own policies, including the hardest possible Brexit, and his careless governing style have greatly contributed to the disorder. Yet, as this week’s sweeping reshuffle suggested, his prime ministerial confidence seems undented.
So why has all the chaos not left his administration seriously damaged? One explanation is that Johnson has made chaos his brand, from his artfully ruffled hair to his deliberately rambling speeches. He embodies the idea that success can be achieved by messy spontaneity – however rehearsed his spontaneity actually is – rather than careful planning. To many English people who believe that their country has always been a rebel in a rule-bound Europe, this version of Johnson is very appealing.
Similarly, many of his policies are meant to be disruptive. Brexit, culture wars and “levelling up” are intended to upset the status quo – or at least to appear that way. In an anti-establishment age, with Johnson’s the third Tory government in a row, creating turbulence may be the only way to make Conservatism seem fresh and exciting. It also distracts from the fact that the right’s closeness to many powerful English institutions and interests, from the press to big property developers, remains complacently intact.
But the public’s apparent tolerance for chaos may also have deeper causes. Since at least the 2008 financial crisis, daily life and its wider backdrop have become more disorderly for many people. Erratic employment, extreme weather, political shocks, the constant flux of life online: even for some privileged Britons, a degree of turbulence has become the modern condition. By contrast, the crises of the 70s occurred in a country that had been relatively stable since the end of the second world war. When this calm was disturbed, many voters were alarmed and angry. They believed that it was the job of government, through the paternalistic institutions of the welfare state, to keep them safe and help give their lives a pattern.
One of the dubious achievements of Conservatism since has been to erode those expectations. From Margaret Thatcher onwards, Tory prime ministers have rarely shrunk the state, despite many promises to do so, but they have shrunk Britons’ confidence about what the state can do. So when the state fails – as it has done so regularly and spectacularly under Johnson – the government’s poll ratings may dip, but they do not collapse.
There is also a political edge to how Johnson’s chaos is distributed. Benefits claimants, key workers and the young are more exposed than property owners and pensioners. As Thatcher did, Johnson and his ministers talk about Britons taking more responsibility for their lives while quietly making sure that the social groups inclined to vote Tory are cushioned by state subsidies and tax advantages. For these groups, the government offers not chaos but continuity: endlessly rising house prices, old-fashioned English nationalism, near-perpetual Conservative rule.
Given all these political tranquillisers, is there any way that a widespread sense of public outrage at the state of the country could be awakened? For his first year and a half as Labour leader, Keir Starmer has been attacking Johnson for his “incompetence” and lack of “grip”. Starmer has delivered detailed critiques of Tory U-turns. He has expressed outrage at government calamities. But nothing has really resonated. Increasingly, he has sounded exasperated and baffled, at both Johnson’s lack of interest in cohesive government and many voters’ apparent contentment.
Starmer’s frustration has spread to his colleagues. After the latest Tory U-turn on vaccine passports last weekend his deputy, Angela Rayner, said: “This is the culmination of a summer of chaos from ministers and they urgently need to get a grip before winter.” Rarely has an important political truth sounded so tired and robotic.
One of Labour’s problems is that it does not have access to the same machinery as the Conservatives for turning attack lines into widely believed narratives. The idea that the “winter of discontent” was purely about weak Labour government and overmighty trade unions – rather than workers reacting against low wages and high inflation – has been sustained by generations of rightwing journalists and historians, as well as by Tory politicians. Labour simply does not have as many storytellers on its side.
In opposition, both Harold Wilson in the early 1960s and Tony Blair in the mid-1990s managed to convince a decisive number of voters that Conservative governments were no longer coping with the country’s problems. But Blair and Wilson were helped by the fact that a lot of Britons were already coming to that conclusion, paying closer attention than they are now to Tory policy malfunctions and scandals. Starmer has neither his predecessors’ way with words nor their fortunate timing.
That the Conservatives seem more focused on internal power struggles and personnel matters than on effectively governing the country suggests great confidence. But they will not be chaos-proof for ever. One of the lessons of early 21st-century western politics is that parties can seem impregnable, and then suddenly be in freefall. So much has happened since Johnson became prime minister, it’s often forgotten that his government has existed for barely two years. It has not kept up its gravity-defying act for that long. And this month, heading towards winter with the virus spreading again, the economy slowing and increasingly acrimonious battles over the public finances, the government is already starting to sag in the polls. The reshuffle is an acknowledgement that it has problems.
Yet whether Starmer can pin all the disasters since 2019 on the Tories, and how that affects the next election, are not the only issues that matter. An equally important question is how this lethally incompetent government is remembered in decades to come, and what influence that has on more distant elections, on the long-term reputation of the Conservative party and on the national story that Britain tells itself. For a long time, the Tories won the war over the meaning of the 70s. The wars over the Johnson years have only just begun.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist.