One of the most important prime ministerial functions is that of referee: to mitigate disputes between departments, or to solve tricky political decisions. Downing Street tends to operate, as one former staffer once gloomily described it, as “a shit funnel”: gradually sucking up every intractable problem in British public life, only to deposit them on the prime minister’s desk.
For Boris Johnson to be absent for the best part of a month after he became seriously ill with Covid-19 was a double blow for the government. Psychologically and emotionally, it was a traumatic experience for many involved. But institutionally, it also deprived the government of its main pressure valve by taking its ultimate arbiter out of action.
Dominic Raab, Johnson’s designated deputy, divides opinion at Westminster, and within the Conservative Party. Some MPs saw him as an astute pick for the role of stand-in prime minister: he could take a fresh approach because as Foreign Secretary he had been relatively uninvolved in the government’s day-to-day arguments about how to grapple with the domestic outbreak of Covid-19. Plus, despite his reputation as a free market ideologue and bruiser, Raab is a more intelligent and effective minister than he is given credit for.
Others thought him a smart choice for an altogether different reason: as one Tory MP put it, “No one, no matter how bad it gets for Johnson, will ever see Dom Raab standing in at PMQs and think we’d be better off with him in charge.”
Whichever of the two camps was right – and even his Tory critics concede that Raab did a better job than they had expected – any understudy would have been incapable of taking on the Prime Minister’s role as the government’s ultimate umpire.
In normal times, that role might have meant adjudicating between the business department, which tends to want more migration and fewer barriers to new entries, and the Home Office, which tends to prefer less migration and greater barriers. Or it could have meant weighing up whether a minister who is continually embroiled in fights with their civil servants is a talented reformer worth protecting, or a belligerent loose cannon in need of a demotion. But in the age of coronavirus, it means resolving the row within the cabinet and the Conservative Parliamentary Party on when, how and whether to end the lockdown.
The debate is often presented as being between two poles. At one end, are the lockdown hawks who believe that the government must persist with the social distancing measures until it is absolutely certain that the disease has been curbed and the British state has acquired the necessary infrastructure to test, trace and isolate new cases. The hawks’ leader in cabinet is the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
At the other end, are the lockdown doves who believe that the consequences of the shutdown – for the public finances and for society, particularly in terms of school closures – mean that the lockdown must be ended as quickly as possible. That group is well represented on the back benches, whose members have a daily flow of complaints and cries of distress from local businesses. The leading doves in cabinet are the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, Johnson’s Whitehall fixer.
During Raab’s time as substitute prime minister, the government unveiled five tests that must be met before the lockdown can end. These tests were, superficially, a victory for the hawks. The first three, which relate to the medical capacity of the NHS, can be measured and achieved within weeks, but the fourth and fifth tests point to a much longer period of social distancing. The fourth is so open-ended as to be close to meaningless. It states that before the lockdown can be lifted, the UK must have “enough” personal protective equipment and testing supplies to meet future demand. “Enough” is an entirely moveable target: by one definition, it could have been met last week; by another, it might not be met for years. Add in the fifth test, that the lockdown can be lifted only when it is certain a second peak of infections can be avoided, and the end seems some way off.
In reality, however, the five tests were a victory for neither the hawks or the doves, but were largely about delaying the moment of reckoning until Boris Johnson returned to adjudicate matters. It’s commonplace wisdom at Westminster that Johnson is an instinctive liberal, and MPs and journalists assumed that his return would mark a permanent shift of power to the doves. Instead, the Prime Minister used his first statement since returning to work to reiterate the importance of avoiding a second peak – a remark that seems to validate the hawks.
Does Johnson’s return mean that the UK’s lockdown will go on for longer than supposed? The reality is that the debate is not between two poles, but occurs on a spectrum. You can no more “save the economy” by allowing a deadly pandemic to run through the country than you can “save lives” by shutting people indoors and destroying large parts of the economy.
Ministers – both hawks and doves – have been impressed by a ConservativeHome pamphlet by the veteran back-bench MP Bernard Jenkin, which concluded that the way forward was not for the lockdown to be stopped or extended, but for ministers to turn their eye to transition – to a period in which we will have to live with anti-coronavirus measures and in which society and the economy must adjust to thrive.
That too appears to be the decision that the Boris Johnson has reached – and while it points to an easing of some restrictions, it also means that the United Kingdom will likely be observing a form of lockdown for some time.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave