Conservative backbenchers, the tourism industry, the right-wing press, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the French government are in revolt over the British government’s convoluted and increasingly difficult to follow travel restrictions.
What started out as a traffic light system has become “more of a rainbow”, according to Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley. Smith’s comments were reported in the Times by Eleni Courea, while a letter from Rishi Sunak to Boris Johnson, complaining about the rules, has made its way to Tim Shipman at the Sunday Times.
Whatever your opinion is on the pace of the government’s unlocking, part of the problem is a tendency by this government – and governments around the world – to reinvent the wheel rather than use tried-and-tested approaches. In the world of international travel, vaccine passports (and in the case of some diseases such as Tuberculosis, an X-ray upon arrival) have been in place for a century. Yet anyone looking at the UK’s travel restrictions would be forgiven for thinking that the coronavirus vaccines were the first inoculations ever developed, and that the effectiveness of the jabs were some kind of bold new experiment.
But the most significant aspect politically is the relationship between Johnson, Sunak, and that leaked letter. The politics of this are fairly straightforward: the mood in the parliamentary party is that the UK’s remaining restrictions need to be lifted immediately, and that the economic costs of restrictions need to be given greater weight in policymaking. Throughout the pandemic, Sunak has been the most consistent and the most powerful of the government’s lockdown critics.
Some of the Prime Minister’s allies think that the letter is all about positioning for the next leadership election: a way of reminding critics of lockdowns on the backbenches that Sunak is their man. (That thinking is shared by one or two of the other possible candidates, as it happens.)
And whether they’re right or wrong to think that, Sunak’s budget timetable means more hard choices and difficult fights will take place this autumn – on territory (unlike lockdown) where the party is far from united and the Chancellor’s footing much less secure. He will need all of his political skills and allies to navigate the next year.