In a footnote to my previous post I mentioned the ‘tell’. This is a verbal mannerism which some politicians display when they feel under pressure. In recent weeks the Prime Minister has developed such a ‘tell’. When he feels stressed and uncertain what to say he has started to use the word “Alas”. This is an interesting tell. As we shall see later in this post, the Prime Minister really hates delivering difficult news so when he has to he often announces some good news to mask it.
His problem is that being Prime Minister in the age of Covid means having to announce difficult news on many occasions and for much of the time, when publicly delivering news, as a person he is very conflicted. Having to do something that is very important but that he doesn’t like doing at all. The problem is that in his job this conflict is pretty much continuous. That puts him under a lot of pressure and that, in turn, reveals his “tell”.
As I mentioned earlier. the Prime Minister’s ‘tell’ is to throw the word ‘Alas’ into his sentences. It is an apposite ‘tell’ because he is having to tell us that something that is against his nature to do.
Google’s English dictionary is provided by Oxford dictionaries. They describe the word “Alas” as Archaic and humorous.
A perfect word for a Prime Minister who loves both classics and fun. His problem – alas – is that he uses it in very contemporary and unfunny situations. Not in his scripted remarks but in remarks towards the end of events such as Prime Minister’s questions.
It’s what he really feels. Listen out for it.
As the number of people with Covid has continued to increase over the last few weeks the Prime Minister has been appealing to the English people to continue to follow the rules and to restrict their behaviour. He has repeated these requests because he recognises that people are becoming weary. What he refuses to acknowledge is that people are also confused. Confused not just because if, for example, you move between three Greater Manchester boroughs you are subject to three complex sets of behavioural rules, but also because the way in which he personally communicates these rules is in itself confusing.
About a month ago, when he first announced the new rule of six to limit the number of people that you could meet, a sequence of political events demonstrated the role he plays in creating this confusion.
On Wednesday September 9 the Prime Minister publicly announced at a Downing Street press conference the clear messages that Covid cases were rising and that this increased the likelihood of a new wave. From Monday September 14 he wanted English people to restrict gatherings to six people. A straightforward announcement aimed at communicating to people that we should change our behaviour.
Indeed, the main purpose of this carefully crafted Number 10 Prime Ministerial Announcement was to amplify the communication of the behaviour change he wanted. ‘Please see people in restricted numbers – change the way in which you live your lives’.
But the Prime Minister also knew that for some people this was very bad news. They would not be able to see friends and loved ones. More to the point he, the Prime Minister, is using the force of law to tell them not to do something that they want to do.
This Prime Minister did not come into politics to pass a law that tells people they cannot go to their grandchildren’s birthday party.
He intensely dislikes the experience of giving such a message – so to help him through it he masks the emotionally difficult message with another one.
So, at the same time, (Wednesday Sept 9) No 10 produced a document outlining how the Government is developing a test and trace system to provide 10 million tests a day in 2021. Called operation ‘Moonshot’ it was announced to demonstrate how ambitious and optimistic the government is about getting through the crisis as a world-beater.
Consequently on the following morning, September 10, when the Prime Minister needs newspapers to be leading on the restriction of the number of people the public are now allowed to meet – this does not happen. Given that the aim of the announcement was to limit people’s behaviour, you would have thought he would want media headlines emphasising the importance of that change.
But no, most papers headlined the Moonshot plan. Most respond to the emotional optimism of that announcement and not the difficulty of changing people’s behaviour.
There is however some divergence. Two right-wing papers that usually support the Prime Minister, the Telegraph and the Mail, lead on the story that, as far as they are concerned the Government, by limiting gatherings to six, has cancelled Christmas.
Number 10, rather than worrying about the fact that the main aim of their communication – to limit people’s behaviour – has now been diluted by their subsequent Moonshot announcement, instead concentrate on addressing the problem of the two newspapers that criticised those restrictions and accused the Prime Minister of ‘cancelling Christmas’
So they leak another story.
The next morning – September 11 – the Telegraph and Mail lead on a new political story emerging from Number 10. Their headlines say that the Cabinet Sub-Committee that made the decision on limiting numbers of people did not really want to restrict gatherings to 6. The committee, which included the Prime Minister only did so because the Secretary of State for Health made them do it.
The world would indeed have become a strange place if a Prime Minister can be bullied by a Secretary of State for Health that he appointed so let’s set that argument aside. This is simply a weird appeal to libertarians in the Conservative Party not to blame the Prime Minster for his own actions.
In the space of three days – September 9 – 11 – let’s just see how communicating to the public the need to limit numbers that can meet together has been handled.
The PM really wanted people to hear this message – to change their behaviour. He organised a special press conference for it. But the content is a bit depressing and he didn’t like the emotion it engendered.
So over the next two days he leaks two very different stories to promote optimism and diminish the impact of his original announcement. The first (Moonshot) is bold, optimistic and forward-looking. The second completely party political to stop the Mail and the Telegraph attacking him.
The intention of both was to distract everyone from the impact of his own original announcement.
And they succeeded.
This may be why the public are confused.