Boris Johnson’s statement: Should we stay or should we go now?

‘Should I stay or should I go?’ The last great song by The Clash could be the theme music to a nation rising to consider whether to go to work following the Prime Minister’s address to the nation last night.

The Government's failure to get buy-in from business and unions for the new direction could cost it dear, warns John McTernan
The Government's failure to get buy-in from business and unions for the new direction could cost it dear, warns John McTernan

A direct television address is a device rarely used by British leaders – Harold Wilson used it for devaluation in the sixties, Ted Heath did it over the miners’ strike in the 70s, Tony Blair to respond to the 7/7 bombings.

Last night Mr Johnson followed them. How well did he do?

The first thing to say is that his task was almost impossible.

From saying one big thing to everyone, the Prime Minister had to shift to saying a number of different things to a range of audiences.

His challenge was to offer a clear direction, rather than a clear action, and to share responsibility for staying safe – and managing risk – with the public.

Moving to a conditional lockdown, which the PM signalled, means applying different tests in different circumstances – gradually changing individual behaviour while carefully monitoring the collective impact of those actions on the reproduction rate (R) of the virus.

The power of the Government’s public health messaging so far has been its clarity. "Stay home" has only one interpretation – and its impact on public behaviour and the rate of infection was powerful.

A more nuanced approach – a more personalised one, in fact – is a more difficult messaging challenge. It is hard to make slogan out of an algorithm.

And while ‘Stay alert, control the virus’ clearly shifts the balance of personal responsibility, it gives little in the way of guidance where something like ‘Stay safe, keep your distance’ might have.

But the issue is not the slogan on its own.

The best messaging always has powerful proof points. And the best proof points come from third-party voices.

In the case of the UK government’s new slogans, all that could be heard yesterday were contradictory rather than supportive ones.

Yet, while one voice can lead us into lockdown with authority, many voices are needed to lead us back to work.

Simply because of the range of questions that need to be satisfied before citizens feel assured that they can safely return to their place of work.

Businesses, individually or collectively through the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce, and transport unions or the TUC itself, should have been lined up to back up the new approach.

Over the weekend I also watched Darkest Hour, the Oscar-winning film on the days in May 1940 that led to Winston Churchill’s "fight them on the beaches" speech.

What was most striking was the amount of time Churchill spent persuading other voices to hear his case and to back him. The Labour Party leadership. The War Cabinet. The Chiefs of Staff. The Outer Cabinet. Each in turn converted, and then each became amplifiers of the message.

Great addresses aren’t just made, they have to be heard, too – and audiences must be won over.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

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