One of the minor drawbacks of a leadership crisis, hugely enjoyable as it is for all concerned, is that everything else a government does is inevitably seen through its prism.
As Boris Johnson goes through the time-consuming, distracting and no doubt mildly embarrassing business of wooing sceptical Tory MPs with offers of jobs, gongs and even policies, ahead of a possible vote on his future later this month, that’s hardly surprising. Of course he’s thinking about the future of Boris Johnson. He is Boris Johnson. That’s how he thinks.
Yet the government is now doing two things so big they shouldn’t be seen through the distorting lens of party leadership. The first is taking an aggressive stance towards Russia. The second is ending Covid restrictions early.
The first plays to Johnson’s post-Brexit political agenda and is, in general, virtuous. The more Washington concentrates on the South China Sea, the more any military organisation beginning with the words North Atlantic seems historical. But without close US involvement, western and central Europe is virtually defenceless.
Putin’s grin is not remarkably warm — I speak as one who’s experienced it close up. But the Russian president is having the best of fun, the jolliest time, just now. He may draw the troops back; he may or may not incorporate a slice of breakaway Ukraine into Russia. But Ukraine isn’t really the point. Europe is the point.
Thousands of square miles of what was once the Soviet Union are now part of the European Union. Moscow would quite like them back. And given a firm prod by Putin, who has quietly built up a hugely focused command and control state, the EU is revealing itself as a great wobbling jelly of blather and wordy confusion, decades away from being able to defend itself against any serious incursion.
In this situation Britain — Europe’s renegade child — may still matter, at least a bit. The Atlantic bridge is feebler than it has been for half a century, but it still exists. So we shouldn’t sneer at the diplomatic journeys to Moscow or warnings from the Johnson government. Russia threatens the security of all our part of the world. More on this in due course, but it matters far more than Johnson’s leadership.
The second big act, the early tearing up of coronavirus regulations, is much more problematic. What do we make of the absence so far of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance? It’s a significant absence. They represented in human form the science Johnson always claimed to be following. For so long now, during the darkest months, they had been ubiquitous at his press conferences: two brooding, impassive statues, Credibility and Reliability, in a modern morality painting.
Where are they now? Gagged and bound with rolls of Lulu Lytle wallpaper in some Downing Street basement? We know, of course, that the cabinet finally rejected some of the more alarming projections about hospitalisations during the Omicron wave. We know that Johnson’s instincts about rejecting a further lockdown delight a huge swathe of Tory opinion — and beyond that, the country. Whitty and Vallance may have simply decided they had nothing more useful to say.
Johnson’s decision to declare victory over the virus may well turn out to be the right one. I hope so. I even think I think so. It may well be that the science, right at the end of this, was over-cautious.
But what if all of that’s wrong? What would we do if another new variant suddenly appeared, or hospitalisations began to rise again? The gamble would have been lost. And, we might reflect, Johnson would not have been gambling just on the views of Tory MPs, but with the health and lives of the rest of us.