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Boris Johnson Needs a Major Lesson in Empathy

·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In “The Godfather,” the book that inspired a generation of corporate boardroom warriors, Michael Corleone dismisses his trusted friend Tom Hagen as an adviser to his mafia family. “Mike, why am I out?” the mystified Hagen asks. “You’re not a wartime consigliere,” Corleone responds.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has the opposite problem. In Dominic Cummings, his chief of staff, he has the ideal “wartime” strategist for elections and campaigns. But what he needs now is a peacetime consigliere who understands how to be a conciliator — or at least someone who can speak softly while carrying a big stick. To achieve that balance, however, Johnson himself needs to understand what is at stake. The corona pandemic is undermining confidence in his ability to lead.

Johnson rejected the Labour opposition's demands for a two week "circuit-breaker" over school half-term only a fortnight ago. Now he is imposing a full lockdown across England from Thursday. Libertarian MPs in his party are seething at the volte face. Opinion polls show confidence in his government's ability to handle the crisis tumbling. This is the second time he has resisted a lockdown only to later cave to his medical advisers. A YouGov poll last week reported that only 4% of voters think the prime minister has done a good job managing the pandemic.

The electorate knows that there are no easy fixes to this crisis. But they expect a prime minister to communicate an understanding of their misfortunes. Downing Street is at last beginning to grasp the scale of the problem. This weekend Johnson made his first joint appearance on television with his partner Carrie Symonds during the Pride of Britain awards to praise health service staff for their courage and dedication.

The Conservatives were once known as “the nasty party” — the best you could say of them was that they were flinty-eyed stewards of the economy who believed in rugged individualism and freedom. For the last two decades, their leaders have been trying to prove they also have a heart.

Alas, in the space of two weeks Johnson has emerged from two political rows looking needlessly nasty. He seems to have a tin ear when it comes to combining strength with empathy. And whether in politics or corporate culture, empathy is the game in town.

Some recent snapshots illustrate the deficit. The prime minister’s negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester council, to impose tighter coronavirus restrictions foundered in haggling over monetary compensation for the city. The government then imposed its will with scant explanation and a dismissive line from Johnson. The offhand manner rankled a lot more than the paltry 5 million pound sum which separated the two sides. And yes, Manchester’s mayor was guilty of “virtue signaling,” but in politics that is often better than signaling the opposite. Johnson was tagged an uncaring southerner happy to lock down northern folk from a distance.

As if to underline his empathy deficit, the subject of under-privileged school pupils put Johnson on the spot again. Marcus Rashford, a 22-year-old England and Manchester United soccer player and admired role model for young men of color, won a campaign four months ago to give England’s most deprived children free school meals during the summer vacation. The government first opposed the idea then caved in.

But when Rashford asked for the same benefit to be extended to 1.3 million children during the half-term and winter holidays, the government balked. Sixty million pounds was the disputed sum. Given the billions already spent to prop up the economy, it was a drop in the ocean.

The prime minister has also made little effort to appeal to Scottish voters toying with the notion of a second independence referendum. Wavering Unionists are not amenable to his bombastic style nor his scaremongering. A JL Partners opinion poll on Friday revealed that dislike of Johnson is the deciding factor driving Scots toward independence.

Public opinion has shifted further toward state action and community during the pandemic. Do Johnson and his colleagues get it? Other than the energetic Chancellor Rishi Sunak, there is a paucity of telegenic talent in the Cabinet. Johnson’s chief adviser Cummings has no public standing in this crisis. He broke the quarantine rules he helped shape during the first lockdown.

Even the much-maligned Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher got the human factor. She was the first British prime minister to make regular appearances on “soft” daytime television and radio shows to signal that she was not just a warrior queen. At the height of the bitter miners’ strike of 1984-1985 she turned up in a pit village to give emotional support to the tearful wives of miners who did not strike.

Johnson does cheery humor and cavalier insouciance, but he strains or disdains to feel others’ pain. A very different, puritanical prime minister, Gordon Brown, had a similar problem. His advisers would tell him to connect with ordinary voters’ concerns and at least make a show of listening. Brown would grunt assent and then carry on in his usual gruff, lofty manner. This was one of the factors that led to his electoral defeat in 2010.

Johnson’s government recognizes that communications need to change. The appointment of journalist Allegra Stratton to make their case in televised press conferences suggests as much. Still, her job won’t be easy. As the fictitious White House spin doctor CJ would have said in “The West Wing,” “Give me something to work with.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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