This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole.
End of year reviews are something of a tradition at Backbench, but this year finding something to encapsulate the essence of 2020 (which is how I try to approach these things) was really difficult. A lot has happened this year. Picking something to write about was not an easy task; so much has changed in such a short space of time.
But one thing did stand out to me. This year may have been dominated by COVID, economic crashes and a looming Brexit deadline, but I feel that a new kind of behaviour has come to characterise the way the government behaves. Of course, I’m talking about the U-turn, a move favoured by Boris Johnson when it comes to practically everything he ever has to make a decision on. And the series of U-turns we have seen this year – from free schools meals to lockdown restrictions – has come to symbolise a bigger problem in how we as a people relate to our elected leaders. 2020 has marked a significant erosion of the trust the UK public places in the government. My question is: what will it take for that trust to be regained?
Now for many people, a government with Boris Johnson at the helm was never going to be something that seemed particularly trustworthy. But I would argue that government behaviour has surpassed anything even the most hardened of Johnson-cynics could have expected.
You see, I think it all started off ok. As someone who is highly critical of the Conservatives, I was bowled over by the expansiveness of the furlough scheme initially introduced in March. While I was disappointed that lockdown was implemented later than in other European countries (the first big U-turn after the insistence that singing happy birthday and washing your hands is a medically robust way to fight a virulent pandemic), I accepted that the government had made a mistake. In those early days, I think there was a feeling of solidarity that has since dissipated; a feeling that the political elites and ordinary people were, in a way, all in this together. If you look back to an article I wrote at the time, you’ll see I was remarkably hopeful that some good could come out of the crisis, and that it would be a great leveller for society, finally putting even the Tories in touch with the people. Eight months on I no longer believe that.
After the shock of the initial U-turn into lockdown, the doubts for me (and I think many others), started creeping in around May. When Boris Johnson scrapped the NHS surcharge for migrant NHS workers just a day after insisting the policy would stay, many had mixed feelings. It was the right thing to do, but why had Johnson initially been so insistent on the surcharge staying? That didn’t really make sense.
My initial response to these U-turns was to think that a U-turn on a bad policy was better than keeping the bad policy. I felt the same with the U-turn on free school meals. But then things started to get ridiculous. There was exam results, the eviction ban U-turn, the list goes on. I couldn’t see what the point was in deliberately picking an unpopular position on a specific issue, sticking to it seemingly unyieldingly, and then suddenly deciding to have a change of heart. There seemed to be no logical explanation, other than that the government’s PR strategists might be engaged in deliberate sabotage.
But then I started to notice something which can only be described as U-turns in the making.
That big first U-turn in the making was the Eat out to Help Out scheme. While I took advantage of the scheme on occasion, I did have that niggling feeling that there was something wrong with the government subsidising restaurant dining after being so reluctant to spend money on (comparatively inexpensive) free school meals for the poorest children in society. But then restaurants needed a helping hand, so in some ways I could see the scheme was justified.
Ever wise, my mum did make a good point fairly soon after the announcement of the scheme about how it might encourage people to go out so much that the spread of coronavirus would increase dramatically. She was of course right. Though virus case numbers remained low over summer, it was not long till numbers began to rise and the government proceeded to blame all of us (and especially the young) for breaking the rules and socialising too much. All this after a month of framing indoor socialising in restaurants as an economic duty.
And the annoying thing was that it felt so predictable. That the government would actively push a policy/campaign that ultimately proved to be bad for us as a country felt unsurprising. After so many U-turns, this was just a U-turn that took place over a longer period of time. That the government blamed us for its own failures was just the cherry on the cake.
And linked to this was that other U-turn. In August, the government began encouraging people to return to their offices (even if they could work from home). By September, that position had been reversed. The guidance for people to return to their offices came from a desire to revitalise city centres; but it flew in the face of sensible policy-making. It was only to be expected that the government would reverse its position at some point – but only after the harm had been caused. The second lockdown in November was predictable too – all the messing around with the tiers system didn’t fool any of us. It wasn’t even like the government was buying time – it just seemed to be frittering it away pointlessly.
And of course there has been significant Christmas chaos. It would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to cancel Christmas, declared Boris Johnson, just days before cancelling it. It’s not so much that people can’t accept the necessity of more stringent restrictions, but the imposition of these restrictions at the last minute and in a way that so sharply diverges from previous government narrative creates uncertainty and breeds distrust.
All of this has taken place against a backdrop of other political ills. Some of these come in the form of government failures and bluster; others come from a place of genuine corruption. Consider the cronyism of government elites, and the fact that Dominic Cummings was pardoned time and again for the most dangerous eye test in history. Think of how Boris Johnson backed Priti Patel and showed people that bullies will win the day if they have enough power and influence.
I think we are reaching breaking point. Not simply because we have an incompetent government, but because we are finding that trust in those we elect has broken down. This is not a good position to be in as a precedent has now been set, and to reverse this will not be easy. With the possibility of another lockdown in January on the horizon, the question is not simply how much can the public take, but how much more of this can we take from those who are supposed to have our interests and lives as their main responsibility?
I think 2021 holds the answer to that.