On 3 October 1952, nervously awaiting the results of the United Kingdom’s first attempt to detonate its own nuclear device, Winston Churchill prepared two telegrams. The first, which would be sent if the tests on the Monte Bello Islands were a success, was just four words long: “Well done, Sir William.” The second was also four words long: “Thank you, Dr Penney.” In the event, the test was successful: the UK joined the nuclear club and William Penney, the nuclear scientist in charge of the project, received his knighthood.
Which only goes to show the absurd results when hard science mixes with politics. Had Operation Hurricane ended in failure, Penney would still have been one of the world’s foremost nuclear scientists – a veteran of the Manhattan Project, whose success ensured that the Allies won the Second World War, and that the US became the world’s first nuclear power. But he would have gone down in history, first and foremost, as a failure.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and a government adviser, may well be about to find out what would have happened to William Penney had Churchill sent his second telegram. Whitty has had a distinguished career as a consultant physician and epidemiologist. He helped to lead the UK’s fight against Ebola while serving as chief scientific adviser at the Department for International Development. But he may be remembered as the face of the UK’s failed “Plan A” to tackle the Covid-19 epidemic, which was to shield the most vulnerable parts of the population while the rest of us carried on largely as normal.
As it turned out, the government’s advisers initially underestimated the spread of the disease and the consequences for the NHS, and only changed course when confronted with mounting evidence that the health service would collapse. On 16 March they ripped up Plan A and adopted many of the virus-fighting measures that government officials had initially derided.
On 23 March, Boris Johnson completed the full U-turn, moving the UK essentially to lockdown by adopting the very same measures that recently had been considered unnecessary and unscientific.
British medical officers have been outside the scientific consensus before, in the early days of the HIV-Aids epidemic, and in that instance they were validated. The question that MPs across the House of Commons think will ultimately decide the fate of the government won’t be answered until long after the crisis has ended: why did it embark on the wrong course?
Was it because, as one civil servant suggested to me, the government’s advisers were too slow to realise that they were combating a new disease with a playbook designed to combat a virulent strain of flu, the pandemic scenario which Whitehall has long feared and was best prepared for?
Were they on the wrong course – as some Conservative MPs believe – because Johnson’s aversion to supporting draconian anti-viral measures pushed the scientists towards scenarios that would allow us to avoid a lockdown? Or was it, as some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs believe, motivated by the government’s desire to avoid the big-ticket spending necessary to weather the economic costs of radical anti-Covid-19 measures?
These are the questions that will occupy the inevitable inquiry that many MPs expect will dominate the years after the end of the crisis – whenever that might be.
In the immediate term, however, Johnson’s government has managed to finesse and deflect the political damage – in part because Downing Street successfully spun the U-turn as continuity rather than change, and in part because across the democratic world voters are rallying to their governments. Giuseppe Conte, who leads a cobbled-together coalition between the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democrats in Italy, has an approval rating of 71 per cent. Donald Trump’s approval rating has climbed into net positive territory for the first time since his early days in office. And Boris Johnson, while considerably less well-liked than his chancellor, Rishi Sunak (who is currently the most popular politician since Nick Clegg in 2010), is enjoying a spell of popularity he has not seen since he left City Hall.
But Johnson has an advantage: for now he has no opposition. While Jeremy Corbyn has surprised some Conservative MPs with his largely constructive opposition during the crisis, he is largely treated as an irrelevance by the press, as leaders are after a heavy defeat.
Among Johnson’s Conservative critics, the arrival of Keir Starmer as Labour leader has long been considered a moment of truth. The thesis is that a Conservative Party that has grown fat faced with a lacklustre opposition will struggle to adjust to a united, disciplined Labour Party.
On becoming leader, Starmer’s major priority, in the short term, will be to rebuild the institutional memory that the party has shed during its prolonged civil war, and to sharpen up the operation professionally. But providing a better class of parliamentary opposition relies upon a government with a parliamentary agenda. The reality is that, for the foreseeable future, the Conservatives have no domestic agenda – other than combating the coronavirus. Their various projects, from delivering Brexit to regenerating the places they won in the December election, have been put on indefinite hold.
So what is the point of an opposition when there’s nothing to oppose? More pressingly for Labour, what is the role and purpose of an opposition leader when politics has been subsumed into the fight against coronavirus? That’s the tricky question that Starmer will have to answer in a world that has changed utterly since the launch of his leadership campaign.
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor