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5 January 2022updated 06 Jan 2022 9:31am

Boris Johnson’s political position has stabilised – but it’s still precarious

The PM has been aided by voters’ anti-lockdown turn but the state of the NHS is an increasing political headache.

By Stephen Bush

Public opinion has turned at just the right time for Boris Johnson. His biggest immediate source of political pain had been that, while opinion within the Conservative Party had shifted away from all but the most moderate of non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow the spread of Covid-19, British public opinion remained firmly restrictionist. 

But an important shift among the third of the country you might call, for lack of a more elegant phrase, “pro-lockdown pre-vaccines”, means that there is now a two-thirds majority against many of the more restrictive non-pharmaceutical interventions.

This means Johnson was able to avoid occupying a position that is either grievously unpopular among voters or among his own MPs in the House of Commons today. While the sense of crisis surrounding his leadership hasn’t been dissipated, it wasn’t deepened by his consecutive encounters with MPs in parliament. 

Of course, his position remains highly fragile, because it is largely sustained by healthcare capacity in England, withstanding the wave of Covid-19 cases, for the moment. The Omicron variant can damage healthcare capacity and society in two ways: the first is the direct toll of people who are gravely ill. The second is the indirect toll of people self-isolating when they test positive. 

It may be that neither of those problems, taken together, end up overwhelming NHS capacity, or supply chains, or any other part of public life essential to the functioning of “normal” life for most people in England, but this is not certain. While the news from London hospitals is positive, the average Londoner is five years younger than the average person in the rest of England, and London had a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases in the first wave. Either or both of those things could mean that a wave that does not overwhelm hospitals in London proves more destabilising as Omicron spreads across England. 

The other problem for Johnson is that the argument the NHS in England is “coping fine” with the Omicron variant requires you to be pretty frank about the condition of healthcare before the pandemic: a conversation that is far from comfortable for a party that has been in office for more than a decade. 

Because, as significantly helpful to Johnson as the shift in public opinion on lockdowns is, it is equally unhelpful to the Prime Minister that the public appears to be taking an increasingly dim view of how the government manages the NHS in general. Boris Johnson may well have avoided one headache only to be landed with another, more painful one.

[see also: Without a plan to reform Britain, the Conservatives are at the mercy of Boris Johnson]

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