Not so long ago, Boris Johnson convinced many floating voters that trust was broken. Our institutions – and our establishment – had seemingly abandoned us. We had had, we were told, enough of experts. Johnson ‘took back control’ in 2016 by seizing on the abject failure of those institutions, first to prepare for and respond to the financial crash, and second to manage migration from EU accession countries. He did much the same last December, pitting, in voters’ minds, the ‘obdurate’ institution of parliament against the people. And he won again.
And yet, amid the fear and uncertainty of a new Covid-19 world order, it is to exactly those seemingly broken and distrusted institutions that we now find ourselves turning. In pursuit of trusted leadership, advice, and certainty we are looking once again to government, big business, public service broadcasters like the BBC and Channel 4, and the traditional print media.
Today’s 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update shows trust in all our institutions has risen. Trust in government has surged to an historic high - up 24 points since January to 60 per cent in the UK. The first time in more than 20 years studying trust that the institution of government has achieved such high levels of public trust.
The main beneficiary in any trust bounce in government is almost always the boss. Having persuaded us to question our trust in institutions the Prime Minister now finds himself in charge of a trusted one. An irony that will not have escaped his well-honed political radar.
But how solid is that bounce? Success has many fathers after all. Some of it, of course, is circumstance. In times of crisis, we tend to banish fear by accessing the fabled “Blitz spirit”, by coalescing as a nation. Our leaders now portray a scientific struggle in military terms, with the one ever present institution in our lives – government – telling us to ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’. We are inclined it seems, instinctively, to listen, and to trust.
The other big factor in the trust slingshot is economic. The government’s undoubted success in outlining and then delivering a coherent economic safety net of measures around the pandemic has converted many past doubters. Just over half of us believe the government is doing either ‘well’ or ‘very’ well when it comes to acting to keep the economy afloat. A majority of Brits trust the Prime Minister to lead us through the crisis to economic recovery.
Johnson and his government will also have some credit in the bank off the back of the NHS’s performance. Our hospitals were not in the end overwhelmed, we had enough ventilators and the Nightingale centres were built in a matter of days. This sort of trust is far more difficult to measure.
The power of the persuader might just be an additional ‘invisible’ factor. The Prime Minister has been the one constant in people’s mind throughout this pandemic Either leading, or as a victim of the virus. Undoubtedly, this will have shaped people’s thinking.
Our research tells us trust in our political leaders is up everywhere – but in the UK it is up by a whopping 25 points, comfortably outstripping CEOs, and leaders of NGOs. Johnson the communicator is the undoubted beneficiary. No wonder then that a significant majority – nearly seven in ten – say government communications around the lockdown restrictions have been clear and easy to understand.
And yet, the sands on which the edifice of state sit are shifting, especially around trust in government when it comes to public health provision outside of hospitals. Here the numbers are far more damning. Only 24% of us think the government has done a good job on testing, 32% on medical supply distribution like PPE, and 33% ensuring access to care in the poorest areas. On the big issue of timing, whether we could have saved lives by locking-down sooner, nearly six in ten of us believe government has failed us by not acting decisively enough when the threat posed by the virus became clear.
Counter intuitively the success of the messaging that has kept us at home, may yet spell problems for government as they seek to take us out of lockdown in the coming weeks and months.
Two thirds of us want Government to continue to prioritise health even if it means further damage to the economy and jobs. A similar number want government to ‘spend now and worry about the bill later’. Covid-19 has changed everything. Six in ten of us would even give up location and health data in order to stay safe, for now at least.
Trusting government when it says ‘time to get back to work’ will require clear thinking and persuasive messaging. It will also require partnership with business. Whilst business has enjoyed a small uplift in trust during the pandemic, CEOs have suffered. Business bosses – invisible to many in this crisis - bump along at the bottom of our trust standings. Getting their response right when businesses re-open will be critical to trust in the workplace.
All of which leaves us where? Unprecedented levels of trust are just that. Unprecedented. It will inevitably be very hard to maintain these numbers. Three factors will almost certainly play a part in the final trust reckoning.
The first surrounds the health challenges. How the government responds to any second peak; how it manages small outbreaks; and the extent to which they get on top of the care home situation?
Then there’s long-term economic sustainability. It is impossible to furlough one quarter of the workforce indefinitely. Even if you own your own currency you can’t print money for ever. “Whatever the cost”, simply isn’t sustainable in perpetuity. There will be a public realisation and a reckoning when the bill hits the doormat.
Finally, the blame game. Ministers say there will be an opportunity to dissect and to hold to account. Just not now. What more could we have done? How prepared were we? What role has a decade of public service cuts played in the response?
Until we have a vaccine the virus is here to stay. The government knows those popular economic support measures cannot be sustained for long. And it’s still possible the number of deaths from this crisis could end up being higher here than anywhere else in Europe. All of which would make this surge in trust, especially trust in government, no more than a bubble. Unsustainable. Sooner rather than later bubbles burst.
The danger lies ahead. When governments lose people’s trust, invariably they stop listening. That really would be a problem for Boris Johnson.
As for those once derided experts. Well today they stand either side of Ministers at the daily Downing Street press conference; government is “led by the science” at all times; and our research shows that of all our leaders it’s the experts who are the most trusted of all. Funny that.