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20 December 2021

Boris Johnson’s woes make another lockdown unlikely

It is hard to imagine how more Covid restrictions could be imposed without the Prime Minister suffering potentially fatal political damage.

By Stephen Bush

Talk about a lost weekend: Boris Johnson’s de facto Brexit secretary David Frost has resigned, citing disagreements with the general direction of government policy and striking a particularly pointed note about the return of coronavirus restrictions too. The Guardian has published a photograph of Johnson, his wife and more than a dozen members of Downing Street staff lounging in the garden of No 10 and sharing cheese and wine in May 2020, at a time when outdoor gatherings were limited to groups of two, large numbers of park benches were still sealed off and in some parts of the country you couldn’t even sit down in a park alone. 

The government’s response is that work gatherings took place in the Downing Street garden all the time and that the photo – in which some people are sitting on the grass, cheese and wine are being enjoyed, and the Prime Minister’s wife is present – just depicts a regular working day. If true, it does go some way to explain the United Kingdom’s low productivity. 

The BBC has revealed that Sage are calling on the government to adopt further and harsher restrictions on movement and social interaction in a bid to ease the pressure of the Omicron variant on healthcare capacity. Even if Johnson wanted to bring in further restrictions, he faces a number of limitations on his ability to do so. The first is the cabinet, not least the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who, the Times’ Steve Swinford reports, is one of “at least ten” cabinet ministers who are resisting the return of restrictions. 

But the second neglected obstacle is public opinion – with polls showing large numbers of people opposing a return to restrictions over Christmas. We can debate why that might be: anger at the hypocrisy of government ministers partying during lockdown, or perhaps simple fatigue with the psychic toll of tight restrictions.

Regardless, it seems impossible to imagine how another lockdown, before or indeed after Christmas, could take place without Boris Johnson experiencing an all-mighty and quite probably fatal level of political damage. Perhaps the Prime Minister is about to discover previously unknown reserves of self-sacrifice: but as another lockdown would require a head-on collision with public opinion and his party, I wouldn’t bet on it. 

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