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14 October 2020

How Boris Johnson’s indecision over a second Covid-19 lockdown is splitting the Conservative Party

The Tories are divided over whether to prioritise health or the economy. The Prime Minister is flirting with both.

By Stephen Bush

Is the Covid-19 pandemic the start of a new era, or merely a painful interruption of the old one? The Conservative Party is split in its answer, and its fractious tribes reach these two conclusions through a ­variety of different routes.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has used his private meetings with Conservative MPs not to advance his credentials as a ­future party leader, but to deliver an altogether bleaker message: that the economic ­activity lost during this period will not ­return. The British economy will be ­suffering from its own form of “long Covid” for some time. The biggest headache, as far as Sunak is ­concerned, is that the government’s debt will be more than 100 per cent of GDP for the foreseeable future, but the complications extend much further.

The Sunak economic remedy involves an immediate reduction of financial support for businesses, no second lockdown and a tax-raising budget sooner rather than later. The coronavirus crisis has robbed Sunak of the opportunity to use his first budget to hike taxes long before a general election, as chancellors tend to do, and both he and Treasury officials are keen to catch up as soon as possible.

For other Conservatives, the ­problem with lockdowns is as much social as it is economic: they bridle against the infringement of ­liberty and extensive involvement of the state in people’s lives. “It’s not a question of whether we can afford it,” one ­backbencher told me, “it’s a question of whether a Conservative Party should be locking people in their homes and forcing businesses to shut.”

For a third group, the central challenge is that the crisis is without a clear end. They note that it took the best part of a decade for medical science to produce an Ebola vaccine, and that vaccines for HIV/Aids or Sars have yet to arise. Palliative treatments have hugely advanced the care of patients with HIV/Aids, but they were the work of decades, not years.

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Is it fair, some Tory MPs wonder, to ask people to spend years socially distancing from one another when there is no ­guarantee of a medical breakthrough? “We have to talk about quality of life,” says one veteran ­Conservative. “Is it really in anyone’s ­interests for an 87-year-old to spend the last years of their life locked up, unable to visit their family or attend a wedding, without a clear end date?”

All three groups, whatever route they take, reach the same conclusion: that the country needs to live with the new disease, not hide from it. Only a loud minority believes that there should be no restrictions on anything – in Westminster they are more commonly found not in the House of Commons but in the House of Lords, where among Conservatives there is a sizeable group of what one peer ­derides as “flat-earthers”.

Most think that some form of restrictions are necessary and a greater level of surveillance is a sad necessity, but that lockdowns – and painful limitations on ceremonies, religious worship and students – need to be scrapped, and government policy should facilitate a greater level of freedom and normality within those constraints.

On the other side are those who think coronavirus is something to be endured and overcome, not adapted to. Similarly, several different lines of thought lead to the same conclusion. There are those like Michael Gove, who has told MPs that the biggest weapon that Nicola Sturgeon has is the perception that she is a safe pair of hands, while Westminster is playing fast and loose with public health. There are those like Matt Hancock, whose overwhelming priority is to avoid a second spike that is more lethal than the first. And there are others who believe that there can be no economic recovery while social distancing remains in place – and that the time for the British government to grapple with the extraordinary debts it has taken on will come before, not after, lockdown measures are brought to an end.

These factions all come down in favour of something resembling a second lockdown and a series of economic measures to keep the economy in cryogenic suspension ­until either palliative treatments or a vaccine ­allows them to make progress.

The problem is that Boris Johnson is a member of neither movement, though he flirts with both. He talks up the importance of new treatments, and has imposed fresh lockdowns on large swathes of England: on 12 October he announced a three-tier system of restrictions, placing Merseyside in the highest category. Yet he rejected ­recommendations by Sage – the ad hoc body of medical and scientific experts that ­advises the government – for a swift reduction in freedoms and a second ­nationwide lockdown.

Johnson’s defenders like to describe the Prime Minister as someone finding a middle or third way between extremes. The problem is that the third way doesn’t exist: you either support the economy during lockdown, or you don’t. You either remove the barriers to the country learning to live with coronavirus, or you don’t.

The Prime Minister’s present course is the worst of all worlds: a lockdown without sufficient economic support, and a regulatory environment that prevents businesses from adjusting to the new world. The mess is not surprising given Johnson’s trajectory. His political success has always been based on telling the country it can have it both ways: spending rises and tax cuts, a close relationship with the European Union and a reclamation of sovereignty. Now, events have forced him to pick one of two options, and his approach is to pretend there is a middle way. It hasn’t worked. The question is how much damage his indecision will do to the country’s economic and physical health before he realises as much.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?