Promising news about Pfizer's vaccine is a reminder of a forgotten truth about Covid-19

The coronavirus crisis may end sooner than many expect. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Positive news from Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine efforts – that their vaccine has achieved 90 per cent effectiveness in trials – underlines a sometimes underpriced truth about the coronavirus crisis: that it will end, and in the grand scheme of things, end relatively soon.

As Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, put it, the important thing about the Pfizer news is that it is a proof-of-concept: we know that a vaccine can be devised to the novel coronavirus. We can’t say for certain that the Pfizer vaccine will be the vaccine that emerges, but we can feel much more confident that one will.

In any case, whether through vaccination, advances in treatment or a combination of both, at some point, the present era of social distancing will end. Indeed, history teaches us that, just as Americans never again fled the cities at the same speed and volume as they did after the first great polio epidemic, even if the unprecedented happens and we are never able to develop effective measures to put the novel coronavirus on its back, political and social consent for continuing lockdowns would collapse by, oh, let’s say 2023 at the absolute latest.

[see also: Devi Sridhar: How the UK can avoid an endless cycle of lockdowns]

That has always meant, one way or the other, that Covid-19 itself was not going to be a particularly significant dividing line at the next election. However, its legacy, and the public’s perceptions of its key players, will be.

That is particularly acute on the Labour side. The party has never got rid of a sitting leader with its present rulebook and I see no reason to believe that will change under Keir Starmer. Most people had not heard of Starmer at the start of the crisis, and first impressions count for a great deal, because we have a strong, in-built cognitive bias towards affirming our first impression of someone and a bias against things that confound our view of them. So how Starmer has established himself in this time matters a great deal.

All the polling suggests he has done a good job on this front, and I see no compelling reason to disregard it. (Not least because the only other alternative source of impressions I have – going out and talking to people – is currently illegal in England.)

He has managed to consistently hit the sweet spot for opposition leaders, in that he is either ahead, level or just behind the sitting prime minister on questions of job approval or “being the most effective prime minister”, depending on the pollster. Starmer is consistently posting numbers that look reminiscent to Tony Blair in 1994-7 and David Cameron from 2007-10 – that is to say, he has done enough on this issue to have a good chance of winning.

My strong expectation is that the end of the era of social distancing will cause a major surge in support for incumbent governments across the world, but that politics will revert back to “normal” (that is to say, levels of support as currently seen in polls around the world) long before 2024.

But, of course, the most important election in the next five years isn’t in 2024 but in 2021, when elections to the devolved parliaments will be held. Who is the “incumbent” that voters will reward? If it is the Conservatives, who rule at a UK-wide level, who benefit in every part of the United Kingdom, that will obviously have very different political consequences than if the parties of devolved government receive a boost.

In Scotland, the ruling SNP received a comparatively minor boost in its standing – particularly compared to the big boost it got immediately after the 2019 general election and as perceptions of the Conservative government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis began to sour. In England and Wales, the Conservatives surged in both kingdoms.

But it is the Welsh Labour government in Cardiff that has overseen the biggest genuine difference in approach between the UK’s four governments, so it may be that this means that Welsh Labour, rather than the Conservatives, inherits the electoral bonus from the end of social distancing.

[see also: Why scientists fear the “toxic” Covid-19 debate]

The longest lasting consequence, though, is what the pandemic has done to perceptions of Nicola Sturgeon in England. We shouldn’t forget that, while perceptions of David Cameron and Ed Miliband themselves were a key factor in deciding the 2015 election result, so too was the fear that a Labour government would be “run by the SNP”, and by Sturgeon in particular. There is a lot to be said about why that was: I think fears of a Sturgeon government were a combination of anti-Scottish sentiment, misogyny and perceptions about the supposed radicalism of the SNP. But for our purposes, what matters is that it appears to have vanished like Scotch mist. It doesn’t at present feel likely to me that the prospect of a Labour-SNP government is going to stir passions in England in the way it undoubtedly did in 2015.

So far, so much good news for Labour. But there are other important wins for the Conservatives. The first is, still the stature and standing of Rishi Sunak. Though the Chancellor’s popularity has fallen considerably from its March peak, and he has relinquished his title of “most popular politician in the United Kingdom” to Sturgeon in some polls, he remains far and away the Conservatives’ biggest asset. More importantly, the Tories retain a large lead on managing the economy – until that changes, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that they will not be re-elected in 2024.

I think it’s striking that when Labour has seen sustained improvement in its poll ratings – by which I mean, consistent, week-on-week growth rather than jumping up and down in the margin of error – it has been accompanied with a fall in Sunak’s standing. This suggests to me that impressions of the Chancellor, coupled with enduring negative perceptions of Labour’s economic management, are responsible for the Conservatives’ relative strength in the polls, rather than the enduring pull of the Remain/Leave fissure. I think we’re probably at, or near, the limits of what Labour can achieve by merely running against Boris Johnson’s incompetence and lack of grip. Without successfully prosecuting a bigger argument about the Conservatives as a whole, and Sunak in particular, Labour is not on a trajectory to win.

[see also: Rishi Sunak has completed his gradual U-turn on the furlough scheme]

That will be even more acute because the policy consequence of the pandemic is that the next general election will be about debt. Sunak’s overriding mission since April has been to unpick the decisions he made in March – the generous furlough scheme, the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit, and so on. That’s because he is a deficit hawk and in many ways the most traditional Conservative at the top of the party – this is why his supporters’ club in the parliamentary party like him so much.

But, of course, Sunak’s popularity in the country flows from a series of things that he isn’t: he doesn’t just want to hand out money indefinitely, he isn’t just a presentable pragmatist who will do “whatever it takes”: he has a clear, intellectual and ideologically motivated view of the state.

The Labour side, too, regard debt as a long-term restraint, but not as one that needs to be dealt with during the crisis. The crucial difference, too, is that the party is willing to have a more radical position on tax: one of Sunak’s problems is that since 2017, successive Conservative chancellors have used the UK’s borrowing capacity to square the fact their electorate dislikes both tax rises and further spending cuts. If your aim, as Sunak’s is, is to reduce the UK’s £2trn debt pile, then your spending choices after the crisis are very painful indeed.

The Chancellor will hope that the standing he has accrued and maintained during the pandemic endures.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS