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2 April 2020

Are Tory MPs losing faith in the government?

Negative headlines over the Covid-19 testing regime have compounded existing discontent – but some ministers question critical media coverage.

By Patrick Maguire

It has been a while since Conservative MPs woke up to headlines quite as hostile as those on this morning’s front pages. Confusion reigns when it comes to public understanding of the government’s Covid-19 testing regime – and even Boris Johnson’s most dependable supporters on Fleet Street have decided that much of the fault lies with ministers. That should worry Downing Street, as should the fact that much of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary party agrees.

From the outset of the crisis, there has been deep and widespread concern among Tory MPs that the government’s policy prescriptions have not only tended to be too weak and too slow – think the delay in shutting down pubs, introducing a full lockdown or providing financial help to the self-employed – but badly communicated. Often that has been because ministers have had nothing substantial to communicate – as was arguably the case with Business Secretary Alok Sharma yesterday – as much as it is an inevitable result of their own weaknesses as communicators. The furore over testing is arguably a consequence of both.

Conservative WhatsApp groups have been ablaze with criticism since the front pages dropped online last night. Ominously for the government, discontent is spread more or less evenly across parliamentary intakes and is particularly pronounced among habitual rebels: Mark Francois, the European Research Group chair, has been among the most vocal. Cabinet ministers sacked by Johnson last summer have been publicly critical, most notably Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox. Others are willing to go even further in private.

Many serving ministers view criticism of the government as justified. As one bluntly puts it: “We don’t currently have an adequate answer.” One concern is that the government’s appeals for help from UK manufacturers focused too narrowly on ventilators, rather than testing equipment. Another is that the institutional infrastructure charged with overseeing the response is not up to the job. “Public Health England has been a shitshow for years,” a minister says. “And now we’re expecting it to save the world.”

But while criticism of the government is a popular pastime among Conservative MPs at present, it is not universally so. Not everyone is willing to go quite so far as Nadine Dorries, the health minister who claimed this morning that testing would not cut the number of deaths in the UK, but some are willing to push back against the framing of today’s coverage. “Doing the metaphorical public inquiry into the handling of this while simultaneously handling it is ludicrous,” one minister says. “So: ‘What are you going to do?’ a fair question; ‘Why didn’t you do something different last month?’ is not immediately relevant even if it is interesting.”

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Others find comparisons with Germany particularly irritating. Though there the testing regime is more widespread and rigorous – and the death toll much lower – some Tories believe the two systems are not like for like. “If you look at the two countries that keep being mentioned,” says one member of the government, “they have a significantly bigger biotech industry than we do”.

Neither line is likely to wash with a restive public or, indeed, Conservative MPs. The defining question now, as ministers acknowledge, is whether Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s plan to ramp up testing is seen to work.