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27 October 2021updated 28 Oct 2021 12:35am

Tories bicker about face masks, but Covid economics is what really divides them

The fiscal measures introduced over the past 18 months have been agonising for many Conservatives – particularly Rishi Sunak.

By Stephen Bush

How a Conservative politician feels about wearing a mask tells you something about what worries them most: their voters, or the good opinion of their colleagues. Ordering the public to wear masks on public transport and in shops is extremely popular in the country at large, but it is fiercely resisted in parts of the Tory party.

One Conservative politician jokes that colleagues who feel nervous about their re-election prospects are easily identifiable because they feel bound to wear a mask in the House of Commons. After Sajid Javid declared that he would wear a face covering on days when the Commons is crowded, another Tory texted me to say that the Health Secretary had clearly abandoned hope that he would one day become party leader.

Opposition politicians are not free of divisions over Covid-19, but they are less rancorous. Among Liberal Democrat MPs, there is serious concern that a swathe of illiberal measures has become an accepted part of how governments respond both to novel diseases and routine winter pressures on the NHS. But it is only among the Conservatives that the question of how to tackle the pandemic has provoked an organised response, in the shape of the Covid-19 Research Group.

Within the Tory party, positions on the issue are so strongly held that it is considered worth embarrassing one another in the national media to express them – as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, undoubtedly did when he suggested that he and his fellow Tory MPs need not wear masks in the House because of their “fraternal” relations. That amounted to a blunt rejection of Javid’s call for more people to cover up.

Conservative divisions are more painful because it is the party that has had to make the most significant shift away from its values in order to tackle the crisis. The UK’s extraordinary borrowing capabilities have been tapped to subsidise shuttered businesses and to pay the wages of millions of furloughed workers. Large chunks of the private sector have been ordered to close by government fiat. While these policies cause more than the occasional twinge of pain among Liberal Democrats, they provoke great agonies for many Tories.

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Pandemic economics is a particular source of irritation to Rishi Sunak, whom other ministers joke has doubled down on fiscal conservatism in part as penance for his extraordinary largesse during the crisis. One Tory MP recently compared the hypocrisy of the Chancellor’s public exhortations for his party to recover its fiscal conservatism to a televangelist secretly having a number of affairs, while several in the cabinet believe that Sunak is making a fatal error in prioritising a balanced budget over lowering taxes.

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Sunak’s allies, of course, dismiss the idea that his pursuit of fiscal rectitude is some kind of psychological hang-up. They fear that, having made great use of the Treasury’s firepower to support the economy, and after an election campaign in which the party made a number of promises about funding for various state sectors, the Conservatives have lost their touch for saying “no” to demands for more money. The worry is that come election time they will be caught in a battle with Labour about which party is best at spending money on public services. Tories fear this is an argument that only the opposition can win.

What unites most Conservatives, regardless of their position on masks or public spending, also unites the opposition: they want the age of Covid-19 to end and “normal” politics to return. For Sunak, that means returning to the old Tory argument about tax and spend. His budgets and his fiscal rules are designed to impose restraint now in order to create room for a tax-cutting budget later, before the election, in order to sharpen the old dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour.

Keir Starmer’s team also want to move on from a debate over how to deal with the pandemic, where Labour has struggled to find a distinctive position other than asking for more restrictions and further subsidies. Starmer believes that Sunak has damaged the Conservatives’ old attack line that a Labour victory means higher taxes, and that no amount of financial trickery between now and the next election will repair it. The Labour leader is keen to focus his arguments on jobs, climate change and crime as the country exits pandemic restrictions and he turns his attention to what the UK will look like by the next election, which is due in 2024.

There are reasons to hope. The lesson from Israel – among the earliest vaccinated countries – is that an alarming rise in cases ebbed once booster jabs began to be given in significant numbers. That may now happen in the UK, too, as boosters are given to top up immunity levels.

But even though that might mean the nation can avoid another lockdown or further restrictions, it would also mean that one of the Conservatives’ biggest problems with Covid-19 – the extra cost – will remain with us. Perpetual boosters and a new endemic disease alongside influenza mean higher public spending and yet more pressure on healthcare systems. Both of England’s major parties want the age of Covid-19 to be an interruption in normal affairs that is now ending. The difficult truth is that the legacy of the pandemic is likely to present a continuous challenge for all politicians.

This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future