The government’s greatest consolation is not that England believes it is handling the fight against Covid-19 well, but that the country doesn’t believe that anyone else would be doing any better. Boris Johnson’s inner circle makes extensive use of polling and focus groups, and this is the clear message: people think the government’s approach to the crisis has been a mess, yet they don’t think anyone else would have made a better job of it.
No 10’s existential problem, of course, is that Scottish voters do largely think that Nicola Sturgeon would have managed the pandemic more effectively as the head of an independent nation. But while Sturgeon can wreck the government’s agenda, the next general election, like all the others, will be settled in England.
Keir Starmer has made a favourable first impression on English voters, who judge him to be more competent than Johnson. But on the crucial question of the pandemic, they don’t yet believe that Labour would have done anything differently.
Perhaps more troubling for Labour, given that the next general election is the best part of four years away, is that its politicians don’t seem to believe the party would have done better either. The best way to disrupt a Labour MP on television or radio is to ask them what they would do instead: as one broadcaster told me recently, they thought that they could see “the light die” in the eyes of a Labour backbencher when they had to move from criticising the government’s approach to arguing for Labour’s alternative.
The perception that Labour is all criticism and no substance irks members of Starmer’s Covid-19 sub-committee. They point out that Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, has consistently been ahead of Rishi Sunak in calling for broader and more generous programmes of economic support, and that Rachel Reeves, who shadows Michael Gove, has been a vocal advocate for the use of local authorities rather than expensive outsourcing.
Reeves’s opposition to outsourcing, which formed a rare point of agreement with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle when she was chair of the business select committee, was a central theme that she and Starmer discussed when she was appointed.
The impression that Labour has nothing to say about the crisis has never been correct, Starmer’s defenders argue: from the beginning, the Labour leader has been quietly building an alternative case.
Although there is some truth to that perspective, it has led Labour into a cul-de-sac. As another shadow minister reflects, on Covid-19 Labour has plenty of important micro-arguments about the government’s handling of the pandemic, but no macro-argument about the overall direction.
Labour wants Downing Street to refrain from recruiting people in its own image for important roles: to avoid hiring the likes of Dido Harding, a Conservative peer, to lead NHS Test and Trace, and instead to recruit an experienced person from one of the countries that is successfully testing, tracing and isolating new cases of coronavirus. But a change of approach from the government is about as likely as Johnson becoming the first man on Mars.
Labour thinks that now is not the time to worry about debt, and a focus on public finances should come once the crisis is over. Yet Sunak believes that coronavirus is not a temporary blip but a long-term proposition, and he will resist a repeat of the eye-watering sums spent early in the pandemic. That leaves Labour having to support government measures that go part of the way, on the grounds that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. The trouble with this approach is that it leaves the party looking confused.
Starmer’s support for a “circuit breaker” lockdown – a two-week shutdown of most of the country other than schools, to get the rate of infections back under control – draws on the UK’s scientific consensus, but it is also a sharply political calculation. The aim is to provide definition and coherence to Labour’s position on coronavirus. It has the added benefit of commanding overwhelming public support, including among large numbers of Conservative voters. The call has already achieved some of its intended purpose, prompting the media to treat old Labour policy announcements on outsourcing and the furlough scheme as if they are new, bold dividing lines.
Starmer’s gambit has also placed Johnson in a no-win position. If the Prime Minister adopts Starmer’s lockdown strategy he is following instead of leading, which may cost him his biggest asset among English voters: the belief that no one would have done things better than him. If he doesn’t, then the Labour leader will always be able to point to the scientists who agreed that his circuit break would have saved lives and averted more misery later down the line.
Look more closely, though, and the circuit breaker has the same problem as Labour’s general Covid-19 strategy: it works brilliantly as part of a checklist of ways to improve government, but leaves the party having to back partial measures, no matter how delayed or unsatisfactory they may be. The point of a circuit break – or, indeed, any lockdown – is to buy time: to fix Test and Trace, to invest in economic support, and so on. But the government is not going to do any of those things – at least not adequately.
Boris Johnson has taken a risk: faced with demands for him either to abandon lockdown or fund it properly, he has opted neither to abandon it nor fund it properly. But Starmer’s problem is that, complicit in Johnson’s coronavirus measures, he will be left with little room to manoeuvre when – inevitably and belatedly – the government misuses the next lockdown, just as it wasted the first.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic