The Johnson Government is Testing the Limits of ‘Outrage Fatigue’

(Photo: The Daily Mail)

By Ben George – Contributor

Back in the Covid-free yet Brexit-ridden year of 2019, Labour’s Baroness Shami Chakrabarti lamented the prevalence of so-called ‘outrage fatigue’ amongst the British public. The argument is essentially that political scandals become so relentless and commonplace that the electorate becomes unbothered, numb almost, to the malpractice of elected individuals and ‘politicians’ more broadly. There has certainly been evidence of this phenomenon, most notably since 2016 and especially when the government has been able to hide behind the ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 pandemic. 

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Johnson government. In fact, it is safe to assume that such fatigue has played into the strategy of his entire premiership. It is well known that the Prime Minister prefers to ride out controversies, believing that the public would move on to the next outrage in a couple of days. There is no need to apologise when the public is, perhaps, largely uninterested. 

Indeed, it is true that politicians have been embroiled in scandals fairly frequently throughout most people’s living memory. The Conservative Party in the 1990s was infamous for allegations of ‘sleaze’ – sometimes used to describe general malpractice but far too often as a euphemism for corruption. It was mainly Conservative MPs caught up in the ‘cash for questions’ scandal but the rot spread substantially, from marital impropriety all the way to dodgy arms relations with Iraq. 

Although this has not affected the image of the Conservative Party to the point where their electoral prospects were damaged in the long-term, the portrayals of politicians in this light are damaging to our democracy in that they make politicians deeply unpopular. According to YouGov, the most liked politician in the final three months of 2021 (Rishi Sunak) was only viewed positively by 31% of the population. 

When trust and faith in politicians hits rock bottom, as it seems to have done in recent years, it is understandable that people haven’t got the same capacity for outrage that they might have had if and when such misconduct was deemed unusual. But if we assume that certain levels of wrongdoing are almost certain in politics, public outrage becomes a vital weapon in exposing, challenging, and potentially removing a harmful political figure, or changing the culture. It is when we lose the outrage, when improper behaviour becomes continuous, that the real problems begin. 

Relying on a lack of long-term outrage is a strategy which certainly, up until November 2021 at least, seemed to have been working for the Prime Minister. From the start of his premiership in 2019, Johnson’s government has repeatedly broken precedent. They seriously challenged parliamentary norms through its prorogation over Brexit, as well as ousting a fair chunk of their own party who disagreed with both the policy and its crude implementation. Since March 2020, a large proportion of the scandals – seemingly more mundane – have been to do with the way governments award contracts. According to the Guardian, PPE contracts were fast-tracked for companies associated with Cabinet members and Tory donors. Similar accusations have been squared at the former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, accused of granting development contracts worth over £1 billion to another Tory donor. Jenrick came under fairly sustained pressure from the media and opposition, and was removed from the Cabinet several months later. This ultimately received little public interest, perhaps due to the wider context of the pandemic. However, outrage fatigue has played into this and helped create a culture where those within the government believe not that such behaviour is acceptable, but that they can get away with it because of a genuine lack of public interest. Questions over contracts might be seen as insignificant; perhaps the ends justify the means in such an unprecedented global health crisis. But when that precedent is set and becomes ingrained in politics, it would be of little surprise if such wrongdoing began to escalate. 

Fast forward to November 2021 and such escalations become apparent, but also the greater dangers and pitfalls that more serious misconduct and scandal brings with it. If the Owen Paterson scandal surprised anyone, it shouldn’t have. Boris Johnson has gone to (what were once) extreme lengths to protect those close to him – Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock, Dido Harding… the list goes on. In the context of these dodgy backroom deals with donors, businesses, and the like which have been largely free of consequence, we see that outrage fatigue has partially created the sorry political landscape we now find ourselves in. 

What has become more apparent is how a culture of ‘sleaze’ and corruption can begin to corrupt the mindset of those condoning or involving themselves in it. This is the only thing that can explain the way in which ministers and backbenchers were treated by their own government throughout the Paterson debacle. A three-line whip (with the enthusiastic backing of Number 10) to support an MP paid the equivalent of £100,000 to lobby for two different companies, naturally didn’t sit well with many backbenchers. Rather than listening and responding to their concerns, however, Johnson’s government decided that threats and blackmail would be a better route to go down. Reports of threats to remove constituency funding if Tories did not fall in line led to MPs allegedly passing through the ‘Aye’ lobby in tears. And yet, Johnson still saw this as ‘noise’; a fuss that would dissipate over time, his reputation barely chinked. 

What is clear now is that this was a major turning point in the way that the public viewed the government, and provided the opportunity for positive change. ‘One rule for them, one for everyone else’ narratives suddenly held much more weight and were pounced on by the opposition. Keir Starmer, who up to November fell far short of an effective opposition leader, called the government’s actions ‘corrupt and contemptible’. He was right. What makes this scandal so significant is that it saw some of the cracks in the relationship between Johnson and his MPs begin to turn into ruptures, because many of them viewed it the same way as Starmer. They had been treated with contempt, and perhaps it was starting to become clear that they would only be pushed so far. 

Let’s be clear. None of this indicates that Downing Street was simply unaware that the mood of backbenchers and the general public towards the PM was souring. It indicates that they didn’t see this as a good enough reason to change their course of action. After all, a Prime Minister who has spent decades not facing the consequences of his own actions is naturally going to be unbothered by a little bit of outrage here and there.  This is the root cause of the culture we now know has engulfed Downing Street. A culture where staff laughed in the face of a locked-down British public, for one. But on top of that, a culture where, when they are inevitably found out, they bend the rules, to the extent that social gatherings at Downing Street are claimed to be within the rules which resulted in people not being able to be with their relatives as they died. 

These events have seemingly proved two points. First, what may seem like mundane and irrelevant rule ‘bending’ will escalate if the perpetrators face no consequences. Second, and crucially, it has proven that the theory of outrage fatigue can only be pushed so far. The combination of the deeply visceral images of a partying Prime Minister contrasting with a horrendous ban on social contact, and watching Cabinet ministers and the PM himself then defending the purely indefensible, has proven to be remarkably powerful. Indeed, one of the most profoundly tragic elements of this saga is the contempt in which the PM holds those who have been sent out to fall on his sword for him. The public is not falling for it. 

The key question now is how long this outrage will be sustained, and whether it will be enough to bring an end to a premiership which is now rotten to its core. With the Conservative Party ripping itself apart, and many people unconvinced by an opposition still trying to find its way, many would argue that the damage has already been done. However, the public has the power to change the course of this government. Proving that ‘outrage fatigue’ has its limits is what is needed to encourage Tory MPs to replace the Prime Minister and hopefully begin the healing process from here. The Prime Minister abuses his office to the detriment of our democracy. People should stay angry about it.

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