The UK’s beleaguered prime minister is struggling with the basic principles of storytelling. The story so far: after his 2019 election victory, Boris Johnson talked about “levelling up” and uniting the nation after Brexit. Later, in response to Covid, this story continued, we were “all in it together”. But recently, Boris has been buffering. The story of unity is unravelling, amid tribal references to “greed”, dismissive remarks about people working from home, grubby relationships with business, a disparaged race report and cracks between the nations. Are these just twists in the tale? Or has Downing Street lost the plot?
Storytelling serves many purposes. In our complex worlds at home and at work, things can be seen from many perspectives. In describing work to your partner, the story might simply be, “I’m super busy, I’ll eat later.” In explaining the same thing to colleagues however, your story might become, “I need an assistant.” Stories serve as shorthand. They shape narratives, win favour, twist the mediocre into the superlative and wrench victory from defeat, depending on how you spin things.
In learning to spin things, we could do worse than listen to politicians. They conjure up cosmetic versions of the truth which, as we’ve seen, is sometimes helpful when managing the audience. For example, someone responsible for life-changing healthcare decisions, children’s futures or volatile financial markets has to carefully manage the narrative, given that they have an audience of 66 million people.
Recently however, Downing Street seems to have lost its grip on presenting a coherent story. Why, is a question beset by allegations of leaks, and best left to those binge-watching Westminster. But perhaps if we start by understanding how things are going wrong, this may shed a little light on what’s happening.
“A huge national effort”
In December 2019, Boris Johnson marked his election victory with a speech from Downing Street. With the UK polarised by Brexit, Johnson urged us “to let the healing begin.” He said that “we are going to unite and level up – unite and level up”, emphasis aimed at many traditional Labour constituencies, newly turned Tory, who were seeking a fairer share of wealth and opportunity. Johnson talked of “bringing together the whole of this incredible United Kingdom.”
Having set himself up as a fan of unity, Johnson capitalised on this three months later at the onset of Covid. In his live TV address introducing the first lockdown, national unity was suddenly essential. Johnson called for no less than “a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus.” In subsequent weeks, the old phrase we’re all “in it together” was often repeated.
However, we were less in it together in May when, for some people, lockdown was brought to an end overnight. Johnson said that these people were “actively encouraged to go to work” the next morning. During the piecemeal, almost haphazard, dismantling of lockdown over the following weeks, unity began to fade.
“Days off” at home
Cracks began to emerge in Downing Street’s narrative. A year to the day after he announced the first lockdown, Johnson’s belief in ‘togetherness’ was compromised when he told Tory MPs that the success of the UK’s Covid vaccine programme was down to “capitalism” and “greed”. He withdrew the comments, nevertheless they were leaked and later described as “obnoxious”.
Having alienated other nations competing for precious life-saving vaccines, just as Britain is, Johnson then muddied the waters with his own people at home. We pulled together during Covid, as instructed. We stayed at home, often in difficult circumstances. During lockdown, we juggled work, home, kids, home-schooling, isolation and loneliness. Pretty galling then to hear this period characterised almost as a holiday. Johnson said that people have had enough “days off” at home, in comments that were swiftly branded “irresponsible” and “glaringly inconsistent” by Labour.
Similar disunity has been seen in Johnson’s approach to the UK itself. A senior former civil servant, fears the Prime Minister is increasingly being seen as speaking “for England alone”, and that “deep-rooted complacency” is contributing to the fraying of the union.
Favouring the “chumocracy”
The spirit of unity has been further damaged by allegations of favouritism in the government’s relationships with business. NHS contracts were awarded in a process that was less than transparent. Meanwhile, Johnson promised Sir James Dyson he would “fix” an issue over the tax status of the industrialist’s employees. Australian financier Lex Greensill was given indirect access to Chancellor Rishi Sunak via former prime minister David Cameron. And, civil servants have been quietly working for business while still apparently occupying a neutral and objective position in Whitehall.
The advantage of unity is that when we’re all in it together, everyone gets an equal chance, so the theory goes. But if some of us are actually more in than others, then this raises concerns about favourites, the “chumocracy” as former chief scientist Sir David King calls them.
For millions of people in the UK, national unity was only ever a theoretical construct in the first place. Last year, Covid death-rates were disproportionately higher in Black and Asian communities. Explanations for this cited racial inequalities, concerns that were echoed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Downing Street responded by asking for a range of race-related issues to be investigated. This work was led by theCommission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, whose report was released last month, to a chorus of angry dismay. Condemned by dozens of critics, the report was branded a “grubby” dismissal of the truth.
Empathy for the audience
A common theme runs through all these issues. These cracks in Downing Street’s narrative lack empathy, a departure from the strategy so conspicuously on display last year. It’s as if No. 10 carefully assembled their story – like a carefully constructed Lego plane – then recklessly chucked it out of a window, believing it would fly. These days, their story is largely lying in pieces.
The critical components of storytelling include structure, pace and clarity, but these are underpinned by empathy for the audience. If we cosy up to one or two favoured members of the audience and give them preferential attention, how will the rest of the room respond? Derisive comments about the people we’re trying to win over is risky too. And so is failing to properly address their concerns.
Empathy with the audience is the glue that holds their attention. It wins their support and trust, it’s why they believe you. None of us like to be ignored by a gabbling presenter, or overwhelmed by jargon, or addressed by someone who refuses to look up from their notes. Better to maintain the respect of the audience by showing them empathy and understanding, consistently. And these values hold true whether you’re presenting to colleagues or leading the nation. Without them, the audience might see the unvarnished truth, and put together an unflattering version of your story for themselves.