Feature: Behind Britain’s blundering ‘omnishambles’

It's officially the word of the year – but will the omnipresence of the 'omnishambles' tag actually make a difference politically?

"Jesus Christ, you are the f***ing omnishambles, that's what you are," Malcolm Tucker spits at hapless minister Nicola Murray, in a The Thick Of It episode originally broadcast back in 2009. "You're like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you f*** up." Such is the constant stream of bile and invective that has emerged from the mouth of Westminster's most brutal fictional spin doctor that he was bound to hit gold sooner or later. But it took Labour's own real-life spinners to pick up on the word and make it what it is today.

What it is today is, in fact, the word of the year. This accolade, awarded by Oxford University Press, comes despite the emergence in 2012 of other ripsnorters – 'eurogeddon' to describe the ongoing catastrophe of the continent, 'pleb' (a re-entry courtesy of a certain ex-chief whip's Downing Street outburst) and other non-political classics like 'twitchfork' and 'mummy porn'. 'Omnishambles' has beaten them all.

This is a big feather in the cap for leader of the opposition Ed Miliband, who first brought the word to popular attention back in April. He was busy polishing off David Cameron and George Osborne in a prime minister's questions dominated by the chancellor's unravelling Budget when the 'omnishambles' avalanche began. "Over the past month we have seen the charity tax shambles, the churches tax shambles, the caravan tax shambles and the pasty tax shambles," Miliband said in the midst of another raucous session. "So we are all keen to hear the prime minister's view on why he thinks, four weeks on from the Budget, even people within Downing Street are calling it an omnishambles Budget."

Once out there, the word stuck. It became shorthand for the torrid period of hopelessness the government collectively went through back in the spring. Since then, it has become shorthand for any form of incompetence. "A situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations" is the Oxford English Dictionary's definition. It became a buzzword repeatedly used by Labour's shadow ministers and, by extension, found its way via the media into more popular usage. A quick search on Twitter reveals its deployment in relation to the selection of sailing classes for Rio 2016, a runner's "sluggish" performance in the rain and a high street shop's cafe arrangements in Exeter. That's about as far from Westminster as it gets.

Susie Dent, a lexicographer familiar to the viewers of Channel's 4 Countdown, says the number of variant words 'omnishambles' has inspired suggests it stands a decent chance of sticking around. "We've had Combishambles in the wake of David Cameron's energy pledge, 'Romneyshambles' after the Republican candidate criticised our Olympics preparation, and even 'Omnivoreshambles' over indecision about the badger cull," she says.

"So far it's almost always been used in verbal quotation marks and with a nod to The Thick Of It. Whether or not it will settle in general language remains to be seen – the volume of spin-offs it's generated shows that it's been highly successful as a word."

Winning a word of the year contest is one thing. Influencing the general tone of political debate is quite another. And, although 'omnishambles' has proved impressive to those in Westminster, it's not really clear whether it's actually making a difference outside the Westminster village. Joe Twyman, director of political and social research at pollster YouGov, doubts it very much. He's surprised that it's done so well in the dictionary stakes, precisely for this reason. "I didn't think it resonated into the general public sufficiently. I do think it's more of a politico word from the politico world," he says. "It's like plebgate – I'm sure a lot of people would be aware of the circumstances surrounding Andrew Mitchell's behaviour with the police, but whether the average person in the street referred to it in those terms, I'm not so sure." He points to polling data to support this: while Labour has managed to pull ahead with a strong ten-point lead in 2012, this still isn't really enough of a midterm advantage to put Miliband on track for an outright majority in 2015.

Twyman's thesis is backed by Jane Green, a senior research fellow at the University of Manchester. Her research has investigated exactly this area – how public opinion responds to 'shocks to competence' over the years. Having looked at over 4,000 questions asked by polling firms over the decades, a clear pattern has emerged. "What we've discovered is that when competence signals are negative for a governing party, those signals tend to have the effect of rippling through other evaluations of the government," she says. "They influence how the public see the government on different issues." If the government backtracks on a policy in one area, or there's a high-profile embarrassment in another, it's likely the public will be less inclined to back ministers on completely unrelated issues. Harsh, but that's just the way it is.

All politicians instinctively know this is the case, but seeing it in rigorous academic research really underlines the point. Still, many officials in the coalition were not especially well-prepared for tackling the Whitehall machine when they entered power after the May 2010 general election. This failure might just be a flawed characteristic of Britain's political culture. Nadine Smith, director of communications at the Institute for Government think-tank, says ministers are too keen to get on and implement, rather than work out what makes their civil servants tick, or carry public opinion with them. Andrew Lansley's performance with the NHS reforms spring to mind, but actually the coalition has been over-reaching across the board in its first two-and-a-half years.

It's been a "perfect storm", Smith believes. "We've got a hugely ambitious reform programme, a hugely ambitious cuts programme, a civil service having to familiarise themselves with new technology and new ways of working, and public expectation has been very high. All these forces are in play at the moment and, while they're not insurmountable, help explain why the coalition has struggled so much."

The developments of 2012 were not isolated, either. Green's research found that that the deterioration in the coalition's first 12 months was a more rapid collapse in the public's perception of competence than that seen in any other first-year period of government. "We don't yet fully understand what that's due to," Green admits. But the economy may well have something to do with it. "Plausibly the public is more attuned to these competence signals in a period of economic difficulty," she suggests.

The similarly poor performance experienced by the Democrats during the first phase of Barack Obama's first term, also at a time of economic crisis, appears to reinforce this argument. I have a pet alternative theory: that the transatlantic comparison raises the spectre of unrealistically high expectations, seen in both the coalition's 'new' way of doing politics and the wave of enthusiasm which greeted Obama's arrival in the White House. Neither government's positive reputation survived for long.

Cameron and co should be worried, for Green's research also suggests that it becomes harder and harder for governments to shake off public suspicions of incompetence. It takes something really big, like the Falklands War, to make a difference. So the string of U-turns we've seen this year, when added to embarrassing little slip-ups like the chancellor's first class train ticket error, will be extremely frustrating.

They're having an irresistible cumulative effect, only making the situation worse and worse for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The provenance of 'omnishambles', emerging from a satirical TV show, just makes the whole process even more deliciously ironic. "What's amusing is how often life does imitate art," Twyman of YouGov smiles. "The story of George Osborne on the train not paying for a ticket could quite easily have been a scene from The Thick Of It." The same can be said, he adds, for any number of awful Today programme interviews.

It's a point picked up by Michael Dugher, the shadow Cabinet Office minister. "Not only is 'omnishambles' worthy of definition in the Oxford English dictionary, it has come to define a whole approach to government by Cameron and Clegg, though omnishambles may rank as a compliment some days," Dugher observes. "This government makes The Thick Of It look less like a comedy and more like a docu-drama."

Labour seem to be winning the soundbite war, as Miliband's 'squeezed middle' emerged as the top phrase of 2011. 'Squeezed middle' was also played upon a lot last year," Dent notes. "There was lots of talk of 'squeezed bottoms', for example, but it provided a useful shorthand for the sort of vocabulary that gained most resonance last year." Why is it that the world of politics keeps coming up with so many reliable new words, I wonder? "Political pithiness is certainly helpful when it comes to linguistic success," she replies. "And it comes from all sides – 'big society' was Oxford's choice the previous year."

One big reason, Dent says, is inevitably the exposure given by the media to political exchanges and catchphrases. This drip-drip process seems fundamental to the ideas emerging from Green's research. But she doubts whether 'omnishambles' is making much of a difference in itself.

"We can't say for sure whether the public is sensitive to words that are used in political discourse. Some people will be sensitive, but we're looking at the aggregate, over a long time period…  it might be those kinds of words can gain real traction if enough people are talking about it, and if the opposition parties successfully use those terms to define a government."  Hence Dugher's bitingly cruel comments above, and the opposition's relentless pressure on ministers to win what Westminster calls the 'air war'.

Being in opposition is easy compared to the miseries of actually having to get on and run the country. "There's a lot to grapple with when you've been in government," Smith of the Institute for Government says. "The job of being a minister is not an easy one. There's always more to do, there's always a lot to contend with."

She insists she's not defending anybody, but simply says it's the "facts of life" that running government isn't an easy thing to do. Fortunately there are lots of best practice examples from around the world, as well as a wealth of research and evidence, and people like those in her organisation which want to help make the government better. "So the good news is, there's always room to improve," Smith finishes. Given the government's performance in 2012, that's just as well. Whether or not it's the word itself or the series of situations which has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations, that it represents, after the omnishambles of 2012 ministers will be hoping things can only get better.