During the prolonged Brexit deadlock, there was a running gag on Twitter. Each parliamentary vote or debate would be described as the “season finale” of British politics – the culminating episode of a TV series in which old enemies return, long-running plots are resolved and slow-burning passions are ignited. Since the UK’s exit from the EU, politics has been consumed by a more apocalyptic storyline: that of the pandemic. The joke hasn’t gone away, but the punchlines have become bleaker.
The crucial difference between a TV show and real events is that, on screen, the main protagonists go through “a dramatic arc”: the events they experience are not only diverting and exciting, but they change the characters along the way. In real life, we have Boris Johnson, a politician who may well have read about character growth but seems almost resistant to it.
Johnson’s national address on 4 January, which reinstated most of the lockdown restrictions from March 2020, could have been delivered at any point during the crisis; only the ray of hope provided by new vaccines distinguished it from previous announcements. Modern medicine’s understanding of how viruses spread is simple: a virus is so pitiful, so far from genuine life, that it can only replicate inside another organism. Unlike bacteria, it cannot travel independently, and therefore reducing the rate of contact between individuals will reduce the rate of new infections.
This knowledge underpinned the Chinese state’s decision to cancel public celebrations on 25 January 2020 of the Lunar New Year, which has a similar role in national life there as Christmas does in Europe. Without either palliative treatments to reduce the effects of the new disease or a vaccine to stop it in its tracks, from the beginning the choice before governments across the world has been between an uncontrolled epidemic or a lockdown.
The British government, alongside most of those in western Europe, was slower to lock down than the democracies of south-east Asia or Australasia. It is an open question as to which of the West’s democracies has had the worst response to the pandemic: Sweden with its doomed attempt to let the virus pass through the population without restrictions; France with its slow administration of the vaccine; or the United Kingdom, which has one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in Europe, and was one of the hardest hit major economies.
The British government was poorly advised in the early phase of the pandemic by its scientific advisers. But while the Scientific Advice Group on Emergencies (Sage) has learned from its blunders in March 2020, the Prime Minister has not. Almost a year after China cancelled its Lunar New Year celebrations, the British government was planning to allow a mass loosening of restrictions over the Christmas period, despite rapidly rising cases in London, which over the winter holidays is a net exporter of people to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the Department for Education was threatening to take schools to court in order to prevent them closing early before the official start of the Christmas holiday.
A few brief weeks later, the government was forced first to cancel its Christmas plans and, finally and belatedly, to close down schools and much of British life. This should have surprised no one – except that it seems to have come as a shock to Johnson, who once compared the coronavirus to a mugger, but has spent most of the pandemic being mugged by reality. Most lamentably, Johnson appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 3 January, urging parents to send their children to school the next day. We all know what followed.
Downing Street justified its latest U-turn on schools by claiming that the infection figures changed rapidly, but anyone keeping half an eye on the Department of Health’s website could see that by the time of Johnson’s Marr appearance, the situation was already spiralling out of control. Either the Prime Minister was being inexact with the truth or he is simply not across the facts. Both Michael Gove and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock have long been advocating for a tougher and more cautious approach.
There are two explanations in Conservative circles for the government’s repeated failures. The first, which is more sympathetic, is that Johnson is an instinctive liberal (or even a libertarian) who quails at the idea of restrictions on people’s freedom. The second is that he is an inveterate people-pleaser who hates to say “No” and who avoids having to be clear about hard choices and tough trade-offs until he has no alternative.
The first explanation is hard to reconcile with Johnson’s tenure as the mayor of London, when his instinctive liberalism was no barrier to banning the consumption of alcohol on the London Underground or buying water cannons for use against protesters. (So “liberal” was Johnson that he only refrained from using the cannons because Theresa May, then the home secretary, prevented it – and even May’s closest allies wouldn’t describe her as a liberal, instinctive or otherwise.)
The people-pleaser explanation is hard to dispute, and privately, few at the top of the party do. Allies of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak say the reason he has been reluctant to argue publicly against opposition demands for increased public spending is that he no longer believes Johnson will resist requests for more cash. Steve Barclay, Sunak’s equally hawkish deputy, has recently been sent as the Chancellor’s emissary to most meetings about the Covid-19 response, which Treasury officials have described as a form of “quiet protest” against the direction of the government. Supporters of Gove and Hancock are no more inclined to give No 10 a fair wind.
And yet, for all their struggles and failures, the Conservatives remain level with Labour in the polls. The odd statistical outlier means that, from time to time, a poll will produce a decisive Labour or Tory lead, but, for the most part, the consequence of the pandemic has been to reset British politics back to 2017, with neither main party surging ahead.
What of Labour? When the government’s strategy for tackling the pandemic wasn’t obviously failing, the Labour leadership had a good alibi for the party’s failure to establish a decisive advantage over the Conservatives. Now that most voters say they believe the government has handled the crisis poorly, Labour MPs are beginning to worry.
The argument that Keir Starmer’s closest allies make is that the Labour leader has introduced himself favourably to a public who couldn’t pick him out of a line-up at the start of 2020 – though most voters believe now is the time for politicians to come together rather than to attack one another. Johnson ended 2020 both with lower ratings than Starmer and than he himself had at the start of the pandemic.
The worry that Starmer’s critics have is that the Labour leader is too cautious to get ahead; that defensiveness is too much his natural habit. Starmer did not call for schools to be closed until 4 January – a few hours before Johnson’s national address. He was unwilling, too, to advocate for closures elsewhere to facilitate schools staying open.
Some Labour MPs worry that Starmer’s unwillingness to risk a little temporary unpopularity – for example, by calling in November for the government not to go ahead with its doomed plans to allow for social mixing over Christmas – means he is missing opportunities to reap a rich dividend when the government inevitably has to retreat. This reluctance to take risks means Labour will never close the gap on economic competence or with swing voters in the country at large.
The case for or against Starmer is unproven, and his project is a five-year plan, not a 12-month one, in any event. But his ability to see his mission through will be strongly affected by what happens now. Starmer’s supporters believe that what matters most is his personal lead over Johnson, and not that Labour and the Conservatives are deadlocked.
If Starmer achieves a good showing in the local elections – due to be held in May, though some ministers think June is a more likely date – that argument will find a receptive audience in Labour, particularly in the parliamentary party. If he falls short, anxieties that Starmer is too cautious will grow.
While those worries remain, the Prime Minister can sleep a little easier. Most Conservative MPs backed Johnson not because they believed he was the party’s most talented administrator or its most devoted worker, but because they thought he was an election winner, as he showed again in December 2019. Johnson’s great consolation is that while, during the pandemic, he has lived down to the lowest expectations of his detractors, Starmer has yet to prove that the Prime Minister’s election-winning skills have deserted him.
[see also: Keir Starmer’s quest to reshape Labour]
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control