Sympathy for Conservative politicians rarely overwhelms their political opponents. But everyone with the interests of the country at heart (not to mention a modicum of human decency) should try to put themselves in their place.
Imagine being a government minister. You are in a crisis like nothing you have encountered before. Unlike every political storm you’ve trudged through, the pandemic has no foreseeable end. A temporary emergency is one thing. Most people are capable of handling short-term privation, and can repeat dozens of clichés about the need to grit our teeth, tighten our belts and keep calm and carry on. But no government in the world has a viable coronavirus ‘exit strategy’. Not one can say with certainty how to break out of a health crisis and economic crisis that feed off each other. The best guess is that there will be no way out until we have a vaccine, and God only knows how long that will take to arrive.
Then the Prime Minister falls gravely ill. He may take a long time to recover. He may never fully recover. He may die. It’s not only Conservatives who shivered at the news the PM was down. For all our sophistication, societies in an emergency have basic instincts. We look to the leader for instruction and reassurance. We may mock and deplore the leader. But when the leader weakens, we are not so different from a medieval army faltering when it sees its king’s standard falling on the field. Catesby cries at the Battle of Bosworth in Shakespeare’s Richard III:
Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
We were told Boris Johnson was still dealing with ministerial papers from his sick bed. He remained ‘very much in charge’ of the country. Now he is no longer in charge, Conservative politicians will have to unite if the Government’s authority is to remain intact, and public health guidance is to be believed.
They ought to be terrified of failing, and recognise the dangers. Brexit tore the Conservative party apart, purging it off much of its political talent, as surely as Corbynism destroyed Labour. Boris Johnson’s emphatic election victory gave him immense authority over his colleagues. I would not bet against the factional virus returning now he is confined to St Thomas’ Hospital.
At the weekend, the Financial Times reported that politicians and their sidekicks, raised in the denunciatory Vote Leave culture, were seeking to shift the blame for the Government’s multiple failures to provide adequate testing and protective equipment to Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and the NHS. To anyone and everyone in short, except themselves. Anonymous briefings in the press are cowardly at the best of times, but they look like the panicked reaction of an administration that is losing control now.
It is tasteless in the extreme to wonder what will happen if the Prime Minister can never return to work. Do not think, however, that the question is not occurring to his colleagues. If one or a few of them decide this is the moment to begin manoeuvring for position, a tactic that inevitably includes talking down and taking out potential rivals, then it would look to most of the public as if the government was collapsing. As indeed, would a leadership election.
The principled reasons to regret the parties’ decision to take the right to choose a leader away from MPs and give it to party members is that MPs are accountable to the electorate for their decisions while party members are accountable to no one. But there was always a practical objection.
One day, we warned, Britain will be in crisis, and the ruling party will close down and spend two, three or more months drawing up shortlists and organising voting papers and hustings as the need to allow its members to pick a new prime minister distracted it from the need to govern. To stop an election, the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs would need to get behind one candidate, and impose him or her as prime minister within days. I have no idea if the Parliamentary Conservative party has the self-discipline to behave in the national interest. Indeed, I have no idea who they could unite behind, as it is not obvious to me who Johnson’s successor might be.
Opinion polls show overwhelming support for the lockdown and the government’s handling on the crisis. But compliance is based on the belief that the state knows what it is doing. The British, like peoples all over the world, are agreeing to ferocious restrictions on our freedom, and the loss of income and jobs. Working, social and family life are being restricted as never before and at an uncountable cost. Even the comparisons with the world wars do not capture the moment. Then the population was mobilised to work together, and now we are being isolated to live apart with all the psychological dangers loneliness brings.
Nicola Sturgeon had to effectively fire Scotland’s chief medical officer on Sunday, and not only because she was a hypocrite – although she was that. By breaking the lockdown rules and driving off to her second home, Dr Catherine Calderwood was also suggesting by her deeds that the pain everyone else was bearing was unnecessary because the experts did not believe their own expert advice.
The same disillusionment could smash the consensus that has seen nearly everyone obey the lockdown rules with impressive forbearance. Public support is broad but fragile. Let a suffering people believe that politicians are sticking the knives into civil servants and each other, or that they are putting their careers or the interest of pandering to Conservative party members first, and it will disappear in an instant.