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‘El Presidente’ Boris ditches democratic traditions for government by polls and media management – straight out of Trump playbook

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
‘El Presidente’ Boris ditches democratic traditions for government by polls and media management – straight out of Trump playbook
After the illegal proroguing of parliament, BoJo continues to snub tradition, shunning any scrutiny by MPs by favoring press briefings for policy announcements, and using daily polls. His only problem? It’s not working...

With parliament now in recess, I can’t be the only one thinking that there seems to be a worrying lack of accountable government going on in Britain at a time when so much is still uncertain about the coronavirus pandemic and the supposed EU trade deal we were told would be in place before the end of the year.

Granted, we have been hearing plenty from the prime minister and his inner circle, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Matt Hancock, but it’s all about decisions that have either already been made or are just awaiting the finishing touches.

There have been big, bold announcements on furloughing, lockdown, quarantine, schools and social distancing from a podium in Downing Street as the nation looked on, but there’s been no one to really ask the hard questions as not even the media are physically present at these briefings, and technical problems – “can you hear me now?” – inexcusably beset any exchanges of merit.

It hasn’t helped that the opposition went AWOL. 

Labour spent the best part of this year embroiled in a leadership contest and, while that has ended, there were still recriminations and reprisals to be enjoyed before a shadow cabinet was finally settled upon. 

But they’re all new at playing with the grown-ups, even Keir Starmer, the fresh opposition leader, so they are struggling to be heard above the BoJo bluster: world-beating this and that, best scientists on the planet, a vaccine for sure before Christmas, just maybe not Christmas 2020, and so on.

A poll out today suggested 67 percent of people felt the government was making up its strategy for dealing with the pandemic as it went along.

I was surprised the figure was that low.

And maybe so was Boris because he’s been polling every single day via YouGov, to determine exactly what the public thinks of government policy as he goes along.

That’s right – every day.

The contract YouGov had for the year was worth around £300,000 ($386,300) but they’ve already racked up a bill of more than £800,000 ($1.03 million) and it’s only July.

Outside of an election campaign, this is an extraordinary expense and the parliamentary spending watchdog has some questions it would like to ask Mr Johnson and his team.

Like, what about asking your MPs who are representing their constituents what the feeling is out there in the towns and shires? If you ignore the elected officials supposedly chosen by the people to implement a party manifesto, then what is the point of them?

Maybe Boris has asked himself and found an answer that might not go down well in a modern British democracy: who needs them?

So it’s government by poll. Like this idea? We’ll keep it. Don’t like that policy? Say no more, it’s toast.

It’s very similar to one other Western leader obsessed with polls and the supposedly divine truths they reveal: Donald Trump.

The US president believes the polls are an unquestionable barometer of success. 

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“Wow, my poll numbers have just been announced and have gone through the roof!” he tweeted a month before he was elected as commander-in-chief in 2015, showing all the critical thinking of a seaside holiday maker visiting an end-of-the-pier fortune teller.

Boris is following the same route: believing that supportive polls are all he needs to validate his decisions and everyone else will eventually fall into line.

Discussion, debate, dissent have all gone by the wayside.

Even Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle has remarked on this, and he’s not a happy man

The Ministerial Code demands that “the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance, in parliament” whenever it is sitting. 

But that was not how things are working.

Major policy announcements have first been made at televised Downing Street press briefings that have been flagged up as must-watch TV for the lockdown audience when traditionally MPs expected to hear them first in the House.

As Sir Lindsay pointed out: “Even his [Johnson’s] own backbenchers want to hear it first, they don’t want to hear it through the BBC or Sky News, they want to hear it on the floor of the House.”

And while we had several months of Downing Street briefings, they were eventually curtailed as the pandemic crisis eased only to be randomly relaunched at a time and place that suited the PM, guaranteeing maximum coverage and audience attention – Sunday evening at 5pm for instance.

Forget about giving MPs the heads up, they can watch this policy announcement on Sky along with everyone else.

Trump did the same thing. Ditched the press briefings when the scientists started to disagree with his own thinking, then revived them again recently when it was pointed out they might be handy coming up to the serious part of an election campaign.

While Boris Johnson is certainly no Winston Churchill, as one of the great leader’s biographers, he is familiar with his domineering style and this gives him the confidence to ignore parliamentary niceties in favor of maximum media impact and whatever he thinks will work best – for him.

The PM’s illegal proroguing of parliament when the Brexit deal was bogged down last year was the clearest sign that he was prepared to dispense with parliamentary footsie and he’s done nothing since to signal a mood change.

Again, it is Trump-ish. When faced with the possibility of defeat in the US Congress over his policy plans, the president simply signs them off with an executive order bypassing any sort of annoying formal scrutiny, like the ban on Muslim immigration that caused uproar.

You can imagine Boris relishing that sort of nuclear option on pushing his policies through if it were a choice in the UK.

While neither Trump nor Johnson are likely to voluntarily change tack, events may force them to review how they do business as we move forward.

The US electorate will let Donald know what they think of his performance in November in the only poll that really matters.

Meanwhile, Boris can just watch the news or ask YouGov how his approach is going down with the public. He won’t like what they tell him, like the news that his approval rating is now at minus 12 percent. Ouch.

His handling of the pandemic, the latest quarantine fiasco with Spain and the growing discontent among those all-important middle classes who feel forgotten – the self-employed, the newly-unemployed, parents of schoolchildren – will make his daily tracking uncomfortable reading.

Add to that the tanking economy and a future that looks particularly bleak, and instead of a modern democracy making its way into a post-Brexit utopia, the UK begins to look like a dictator-driven banana republic in thrall to Uncle Sam in style, and, considering our recent dealings with, say, China, in approach as well.

That makes showman Boris not so much the president, but more El Presidente.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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