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19 March 2021

France’s lockdown will have political consequences in the UK

The clear divisions in the vaccine roll-out across Europe will affect Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon

By Stephen Bush

Sixteen areas of France (covering 21 million people in all) will go back into lockdown to curb rising cases of coronavirus, as the country’s vaccine roll-out continues to suffer delays and from high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the public – a longstanding feature of French society that has been exacerbated by Emmanuel Macron’s own equivocal words about the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine. (His prime minister, Jean Castex, will today receive the AstraZeneca jab, which has received a second all-clear from the European Medicines Agency.)

It’s a human tragedy for France, and one that will, I think, have political consequences not only for Macron but in the United Kingdom.

​​​​We know, looking across the world, that the pandemic has largely boosted incumbent governments. But we’ve also seen that people have tended to use their near neighbours as a yardstick.

That western Europe handled the pandemic worse than south-east Asia, I am convinced, contributed to the narrative across the continent that no leader could have done better, which in different ways has helped Boris Johnson, Mark Rutte, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

But the vaccine roll-out has shown clear divisions within western Europe. Some countries, the UK in particular, have done considerably better than others. That comparison flatters Boris Johnson and is, in my view, the biggest contribution to the increase in Conservative fortunes across the country.

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Yes, the inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations is a politically draining story for Nicola Sturgeon’s government. But it is also a convoluted and messy one dominated by partisan actors. It’s not, in my view, a plausible explanation for the decline in support for Scottish independence, not least because the beginning of the decline pre-dates the inquiry’s biggest stories.  

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That, as we go into the devolved elections in Scotland and Wales and the local elections in England, one of our nearest neighbours is struggling to manage the pandemic as restrictions here are eased and the vaccine roll-out continues will surely help the Conservatives. And while Keir Starmer can, at least, comfort himself that the vaccine bounce is happening in the run-up to a local election not a general one, for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, it couldn’t come at a worse time.