Four days ago, as he faced Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson declared: “I wish he’d had the guts to just say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas.”
The scene was a familiar one – the bacchanalian Johnson deriding his opponents as illiberal killjoys. When Starmer called for a second national lockdown in October, the Prime Minister denounced his “opportunism” and warned that tighter restrictions would be a “disaster”. But as on that occasion, Johnson has been forced to perform a humiliating capitulation.
As he duly cancelled Christmas, the PM sought to use the discovery of a rapidly-spreading new strain of Covid-19 as political cover; but long before that, the planned five-day relaxation of rules appeared reckless. The second lockdown – imposed too late and lifted too early – had failed to reduce cases and hospitalisations to a safe level. An Ipsos MORI poll of the public conducted from 4-10 December found that 49 per cent believed the Christmas rules were “not strict enough”, while just 10 per cent believed they were “too strict”. Not for the first time during this pandemic, the voters were wiser than those who govern on their behalf.
Hear more about the Christmas u-turn on the New Statesman podcast:
Yet it took until 19 December, just four days before the planned removal of restrictions, for Johnson to finally abandon the government’s totemic mission to “save Christmas”. The “last helicopter out of Saigon” scenes that resulted at London stations were the predictable and grim consequence.
It was back in mid-July that the Prime Minister first announced his ambition of “a more significant return to normality” by Christmas – a promise that has aged about as well as that in 1914. Throughout the pandemic, Johnson has stoked false hopes. As early as 19 March he declared that the UK could “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks. Reality has proved a more stubborn opponent.
Rather than patronising voters, Johnson should have levelled with them: faced with the worst pandemic for a century, it was absurd to expect a return to “normality” before a vaccine had been rolled out. A wiser administration would have started with the presumption that Christmas would not take place as planned and relaxed restrictions if the scientific evidence allowed. But the Prime Minister, a have-cake-and-eat-it politician, could not resist conjuring the illusion of victory.
Throughout the summer, the government paid the public to “Eat Out to Help Out” and implored them to return to offices (on pain of redundancy). Had ministers truly wanted to “save Christmas” they would have done the reverse: offering the public financial incentives to stay at home (the UK maintains the lowest level of statutory sick pay in the OECD at just £95.85 per week).
This strategy flowed from a false division between “saving the economy” and “saving lives”. Though restrictions constrain growth, an out-of-control pandemic is far worse. As Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, noted when I interviewed her in October, “the places that went in hard, dealt with their public health problem and then released had a better economic recovery and more consumer confidence.”
It is no coincidence that the UK has suffered one of the worst Covid-19 death rates in the world and one of the worst economic recessions (of the OECD countries, only Argentina is forecast to have a weaker recovery). For this, Rishi Sunak, as well as Johnson, bears much blame. The Chancellor, a fiscal conservative at heart, rushed to roll back economic support in an attempt to reduce government borrowing. He continually dismissed demands for the furlough programme to be extended beyond 31 October and cut the wage scheme’s subsidy from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. One could have been forgiven for assuming, in Johnson’s words, that Covid-19 had been “sent packing”. It had not.
At every turn, Sunak has lobbied for minimal restrictions on pro-growth grounds. But the resultant programme of on-off economic support – as Covid-19 has continually resurged – has cost jobs and livelihoods. “The timing of redundancies coming through very fast as we moved into the autumn is to do with the planning around the Job Retention Scheme and the short notice of it being retained,” Torsten Bell, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, recently told me.
Some offer pleas in mitigation for the government: it has faced hideous trade-offs and most major European countries have struggled to contain the pandemic. There is some truth in this, but we should not resile from harsh but necessary judgements. Faced with a public health emergency and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it has been the UK’s misfortune to be governed by one of the most callow and unimpressive administrations in postwar history. Boris Johnson, a fair-weather politician, assumed office at the worst possible moment.