One of the under-reported features of how Westminster operates is recklessness. Plans to refurbish parliament, for example, have been continually delayed and fussed over because traditionalist MPs fear that any urgent action would lead to the national legislature being relocated permanently, and many more MPs fear the political consequences of being seen to lavish public funds on doing up their own workplace. In the meantime, they, their staff and thousands of others have to work in what might be the world’s only Grade 1 listed firetrap.
On 11 March, MPs of all parties crowded in the Commons chamber to hear Rishi Sunak deliver his first Budget as chancellor, despite one of their number, the health minister Nadine Dorries, having already been diagnosed with Covid-19. And six days later, Boris Johnson would tell both MPs and the British public to avoid unnecessary social contact in order to combat the disease.
That recklessness reflects another neglected political truth: that politics is a social business. The major reason Jeremy Corbyn (who was elected to the Commons in 1983) was able to become Labour leader was that many MPs who did not share his politics had over the years come to like him because of his kindness and willingness to drop everything to turn up at an event, give a short speech and support his colleagues.
Shy and reserved politicians can make it to the very top, as Theresa May did: but one of the reasons why is that she spent years on the “rubber chicken” circuit, helping to fund-raise for local MPs in marginal seats and accruing many admirers in the parliamentary party. Yet few knew her well and there were no Mayites in the way that there were Cameroons.
Personal relationships are the grease not only of internal party battles but also of the legislative process as a whole. One reason many MPs, including those usually on the side of constitutional innovations, are reluctant to move to electronic voting is because they enjoy mingling with ministers during the passage of legislation. This is regarded by many as an invaluable chance to press a point or to lobby a minister, whose schedule may otherwise be booked up for months in advance.
Now politics, along with the rest of society, will have to adapt to a period in which those social connections are on hold. The task before the government is effectively to put most of the economy into cryogenic suspension, so that it can re-emerge from the coronavirus-enforced isolation largely unharmed and intact.
Is this even possible? Many people can work from home, and many others will continue to be able to flourish in the vital work of keeping supplies moving. But large numbers, perhaps a majority, of British workers are facing six months of lost wages, and perhaps more.
Among economists, there is a near-universal consensus about what the government needs to do: large subventions of cash to businesses and households. The threat to society if the right solution is not found was illustrated by a single statistic from Transport for London, the body which runs the capital’s extensive public transport network. Tube journeys have already fallen by 19 per cent, leaving the organisation in need of more money from central government.
Yet far more alarming than the fall in Tube passenger numbers is that the numbers commuting by bus have only fallen by 10 per cent. The nine-point gap isn’t because people who travel by bus are healthier or less prone to listen to government advice. It’s because, on the whole, those who travel by bus are less wealthy and less able to work from home. No amount of well-meaning advice from the government or conscientious action by the rest of London will matter if the capital’s poorest feel compelled to continue working and to circulate, though they might be ill or emerging from a long period of near-quarantine.
The consensus on what the government should do spans everyone from Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s former chief aide when he was chancellor, to James Meadway, who performed the same role for John McDonnell. It has led one Conservative backbencher despairingly to recall the Princeton economist Alan Blinder’s old rule that economists are at their least politically influential when they are at their most united and well informed, and at their most influential when they are divided and uncertain.
So what should be done if Rishi Sunak’s initial plans to tackle the stresses created by the coronavirus crisis fall short? And how best to pile on the pressure?
The usual levers of opposition, both within the Conservative Party and across parliament, involve in-person appearances: in the House of Commons, primarily, but also through organising outside it. Different methods and modes of organisation will now have to be found.
That political question is an example of a much bigger one: what will months of near-quarantine do to British society?
Even if the right choices are made and the economy is successfully put on ice and reheated after the crisis ends, different ways of living and organising will have to be found. That process will not only change how politicians organise during the time of shutdown; it will change global and national culture for the foreseeable future, long after we are able to emerge from our homes and into public life.
The pattern of life might return to its pre-coronavirus normality, the right choices might be taken to preserve the economy in amber until it can be restored: but whatever happens politically and economically, our culture and politics will surely be changed forever.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning