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2 December 2020

Boris Johnson has failed to adapt his economic policy to vaccine success

The UK government’s aim should be to preserve the economy in as good a condition as possible.

By Stephen Bush

The Pfizer vaccine has been temporarily approved for general use in the United Kingdom and the roll-out will begin as soon as next week. The first phase of vaccinations will target the most vulnerable and those most likely to spread the disease, including people who live in care homes and care workers, the over-80s and front-line workers in the healthcare system. 

It’s a good news story for everybody and a much-needed boost for Boris Johnson, who suffered his biggest parliamentary rebellion yet after 55 Conservative MPs voted against England’s return to regional lockdowns and a further 16 abstained (as a matter of course, Conservative MPs in Scottish seats do not vote on matters that are confined solely to England). 

The rebellion was easily large enough to defeat the government had the opposition parties not abstained, though that works both ways. That Labour and the Liberal Democrats had both confirmed they would abstain made voting against the government a risk-free hit as far as the average Conservative rebel was concerned. If you felt the government had met you halfway, you had no incentive to return to the fold. Of course, the bigger story as far as parliament goes is that through a combination of neglect, lack of transparency and straightforward rudeness, Johnson’s Downing Street operation has managed to severely erode its 86-seat majority, leaving it in doubt whether this parliament is capable of doing anything controversial without cross-party support. 

The striking thing about yesterday’s debate is how little the good news about vaccines has been allowed to intrude on the debate on either side of the Conservative divide. The government has put forward a frankly inadequate £1,000 payment to pubs that have to close – barely two per cent of what the average December profit of a British pub is.

Johnson and Rishi Sunak are still acting as if coronavirus could be with us for years, and that fiscal firepower is being wasted on helping businesses through a temporary crisis when it should be used to help them adapt to a long-term era of lockdowns. Parliament’s lockdown sceptics are acting as if the strategy is an indefinite commitment, rather than one with a clear and visible end. 

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As I wrote in July, the positive news around vaccines has long meant that the government needed to rethink its economic strategy and move away from facilitating adaptation to lockdowns and social distancing, and towards preserving the economy in as good a condition as possible. The failure to adapt policy to that reality is a far bigger problem for Johnson than his mutinous MPs.