Let me be the one to say something positive about the Prime Minister. Not many others are doing so and, it’s fair to say, there is plenty of Boris Johnson criticism in the words below.
The emergence of the Allegra Stratton video, obtained by ITV, resulted in the collapse of what was already a very fragile government position: that the rules were complied with respect to whatever happened on 18 December. A succession of ministers had been interviewed in recent days arguing that they had no idea what had happened but they were confident that no rules had been broken. It was an untenable and humiliating position, but that is part of the territory in being a minister in this government.
Once the mock press conference video was out, even this was out of the question, and no minister was foolish enough to defend the government’s position on Wednesday (8 December) morning.
This left space for the lockdown sceptics on the Tory benches to fill the airwaves. Charles Walker (a lovely man but serially wrong-headed on matters relating to Covid-19) argued that all future lockdowns would be voluntary because the government had lost the moral authority to impose restrictions. The anger at the behaviour within No 10 was genuine and justified but the conclusion – that the government was no longer in a position to take action – is a dangerous one.
The timing could not be worse. There is much we do not yet know about Omicron but it is plausible that the next few months could be very difficult indeed. It is clear that the new variant is more transmissible than others, with the evidence suggesting that cases could be doubling every two to three days.
It is true the evidence suggests that people infected by Omicron seem to be protected from severe illness, but it is premature to claim that this variant is itself milder. The prevalence of mild cases may reflect the fact that a large number of these cases were people who already had protection. We cannot be confident that the unvaccinated and uninfected will necessarily have only mild symptoms. And, as we really should have all learned by now, deaths and hospitalisations are lagging indicators.
The risks to public health are great. A very low hospitalisation rate of a very large number of infections can still result in a very high number of hospitalisations. Potentially, this might be enough to overwhelm the NHS – the fear of which was the justification for the original lockdown.
If the government is to act effectively, it needs to act now. The Prime Minister might have delayed action, waiting for the evidence to become clearer and avoided upsetting his backbenchers at a time of political vulnerability. After all, he has done that before – with disastrous consequences. On this occasion, however, he announced a series of significant restrictions.
Personally, I would have gone further on vaccine passports (better to lock down the irresponsible unvaccinated who are making up 90 per cent of those requiring specialist care rather than the population as a whole) but – and here is my positive comment about the Prime Minister – he deserves some credit for swiftly taking action.
This must be tempered by the fact that it was the Prime Minister who got himself into this mess. An unwillingness to confront harsh realities among Conservative MPs was a state of mind Boris Johnson encouraged and exemplified over the Brexit debate, and he is now facing the consequences.
The damage done to the government’s credibility over the various Christmas parties also lies with the Prime Minister. An apparent culture of rule-breaking within No 10 comes from the top (it is inconceivable that other recent Prime Ministers would have allowed parties there given the circumstances of November and December 2020). The extraordinary evasiveness on this issue over the past week has exposed a contemptuous attitude for the public.
Even the resignation of Stratton left a nasty taste in the mouth. She had no choice after Johnson announced that he was “sickened and furious” by the video clip. But why was he “sickened and furious” if, as he maintains, there was no party? Watch the clip again and assume (if you can) that you genuinely think no party occurred. In those circumstances, you might find the exchanges baffling, but not sickening.
The Prime Minister’s position is that he believes no party took place, so how could he be angry? Others might be angry about the evasiveness but Johnson has been evader-in-chief. As for anger about the flippant tone of a private discussion, this does not sit well from Boris “operation last gasp” and let “the bodies pile high in their thousands” Johnson. The unfortunate Stratton (who was one of the better things about this government, in my opinion) has learned that association with Johnson often ends in tears.
This episode further damages his credibility at a time when the credibility of the Prime Minister really matters. His critics are right that he has little moral authority to demand new restrictions, but if that is a real problem the answer is not to dump the restrictions. It is to dump the Prime Minister.