We need reasoned argument, not slogans, from our leaders – David Behrens

It was as if Stanley Unwin himself had made the announcement. The Government’s revised rules on where we can and can’t go, and for what purpose, appeared to have been drawn up by someone who compiles cryptic crosswords for a living.

Will a public inquiry be held into the Government's handling of the crisis? Photo: PA

Communicating concisely and intelligently ought to be a fundamental duty of Government, especially at a time of crisis. Given that the present administration employs possibly the largest public relations department in the country, this is doubly so.

But Sunday’s mixed messages, and the Prime Minister’s subsequent attempt to explain them, seldom rose above the level of gobbledegook.

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We could not, it was said, visit family and friends – yet inviting strangers into the house was fine, so long as we had placed it on the market. That was the Unwinesque part; the rest was more tragic than comic.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has revealed that it is "very likely" the UK will face a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: PA.

Ministers have a responsibility at this time to help lift the national morale, in the way their predecessors did during the war. That doesn’t mean glossing over the truth – that much they can manage – but laying out a recovery map which embraces more than just the one-note message of protecting the NHS at all costs.

The clearest picture yet of what those costs might be emerged this week, not from the Government but in a survey by a price comparison website, which found that fully a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds would struggle to pay their bills in the coming weeks. Most of them expect their long-term prospects to be significantly worse than a year ago.

At the same time, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, warned of the likelihood of the UK suffering the worst recession for several centuries. Again, it is the young – our children and grandchildren – who will bear the brunt of this. They are to be the long-term victims of this pandemic.

Significantly, the Treasury did not volunteer any of this until a newspaper got hold of a document its officials had drawn up, warning that the UK’s deficit this year could be £337bn instead of the forecast £55bn, and that it may take income tax hikes, a two-year pay freeze in the public sector and a raid on pensions to fill the hole. Quite how freezing public salaries would help protect the NHS was not said.

How could Ministers, and the self-styled communications experts that surround them, have lost control of the message so spectacularly? The clue is in the catchphrases. People succeed in politics by making complex issues seem simple: make America great again; get Brexit done; protect the NHS. If it sounds like an open-and shut case, people are more likely to take it at face value.

That is the level of banality on which Dominic Cummings, the PM’s spin doctor-in-chief, operates. He likes to surround himself with cod science about demographics and engagement, but when confronted with real science he quickly becomes unspun – as Boris Johnson demonstrated this week during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Yet there is no sign of change. On the contrary, it emerged last week that Isaac Levido, the Australian strategist who advised the PM during the election last winter, had moved into Downing Street to further manage the “marketing” of the quarantine rules. It was he who apparently devised the new slogan encouraging us to “stay alert”. Why use a reasoned and measured argument when two words will do?

Election pundits like Cummings and Levido are the last people we need right now. Their brand of sloganeering might work at the polls, where only a yes or no choice is required from voters, but a pandemic calls for a subtler and more nuanced response and the Government should be leading it, not reducing it to the level of an advertising jingle.

That’s not to say that finding the right tone is easy. The innate sense of right and wrong that guided the country through the war is absent now, but that is all the more reason for openness. To be seen to be playing fast and lose with the facts will encourage others to do the same, and before you know it, we’ll all be putting our houses on the market in order to invite the family round.

Short-term obsessions with testing targets are a diversion from the real issues of recovery, both medical and financial. Those are the areas in which our leaders should be trying to enlighten us, and their failure to do so will ultimately be the basis on which we judge them.

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James Mitchinson, Editor