In my earlier career on another paper, I was given the assignment of reporting an annual opinion poll on public recognition of cabinet ministers. This task was always handed to a junior member of staff since it involved calling up a senior politician and asking how he felt about the news that no one knew who he was.
It was far harder to get through to them in those pre-mobile days. You had to get past at least one aide or press officer who presumably did not relish briefing the boss on the nature of the phone call they were about to have. “Hi boss, the Telegraph wants a quick word on how you’ve made absolutely no impact in your career to date.”
Given that the minister normally scored between 0 and 2 per cent, most took it pretty well. I’d tell you their reactions but you won’t remember who they are.
The inescapable takeaway was how few politicians people recognised. In 1989, 10 years into her premiership, there were still around 8 per cent of voters who could not identify Margaret Thatcher. With a couple of exceptions, barely one in 10 people could name half of the most senior politicians of the country.
I have not seen recent polling on the current cabinet but I’d guess that Boris Johnson’s figures will be very high and Rishi Sunak’s decent, after which the numbers will fall pretty fast. Priti Patel would do OK and, after a year in which he has barely been off the television, Matt Hancock ought to fare well. Most will be largely unknown to those who elect them.
I was reminded of those days by a survey this week showing how few political terms are actually understood by the public. Some results were not surprising. Spad (a special adviser) is pure jargon, though Dominic Cummings did much to get it into common parlance. Around a third thought they knew what “levelling up” meant. The phrase “sunlit uplands” was also little understood, which is surprising since it comes up so often in normal conversation. “I’m just popping out to the sunlit uplands, do you want anything from the shops?”
Admittedly, it is all rather shocking for a certain type: the kind who interrupt dinner table conversations with “point of order, Mr Speaker”, who know the words to Neil Kinnock’s Militant speech — “a laybah council” — or who cannot think of Skye without adding the words Ross and Lochaber.
What struck me then, and indeed now, is that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a sign that politics is functioning normally and that normal people have better things to think about. It is not healthy for the nation to know about the standing orders of the Commons. It is not, when you think about it, a good sign that a higher than average number of people can name the health secretary.
If a mid-level cabinet minister is well-known, it is not because things are going well. It means they have been caught in a scandal or they are presiding over a crisis. Gavin Williamson may be higher profile than many education secretaries but the only things people reliably know about him is that he’s got a pet tarantula and that it would probably make a better fist of the job.
It is, of course, true that this inattention makes voters easier to mislead and ignore, which is always dangerous, but the cleverest politicians understand which issues hold the public’s attention and know that the trick is not to muck those up. Opposition parties equally must find ways to talk to voters that secure their attention.
The political (as opposed to governmental) challenge of the pandemic is that it is affecting everyone’s daily lives and so voters are paying attention and have a view on how their leaders are doing. Be it Brexit or the pandemic, such active political awareness is a sign of discontent.
The great irony then is that while most politicians crave power and recognition, life tends to be a lot happier when no one knows who they are. Pity the land whose ministers score high on Pointless.
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