Britain has suffered one of the world’s highest Covid death tolls and worst Covid recessions. It has managed this abysmal feat despite spending nearly £300bn on countering the virus, a sum far greater than almost any other comparable country. We have achieved the triple crown of medical, economic and fiscal failure because of a reason that is under-discussed: the lethal divisions on the right.
They have paralysed the government, and condemned thousands to premature deaths and needless suffering. Yet we do not see them with the clarity we should because of our skewed culture. Conservative titles dominate the written media, and for reasons I will get to, opposition to public health is far more likely to be found on the right than the left. Meanwhile broadcasters’ conceptions of ‘impartiality’ ensure that doctors and epidemiologists must always be ‘balanced’ by know-nothing ideologues and base-pleasing hacks.
Perhaps foreign observers can see clearly how weird contemporary Britain is. We natives do not because our media culture has made marginal and cranky views appear mainstream and natural. The real-world consequences of the divisions in the ruling party between Conservative realists and, for want of a better word, ‘libertarians’ remain, unfortunately, all-too clear.
Watching this government has been like watching bad slapstick. What makes the routine both tiresome and deadly is that it is always slipping on the same banana skin; always crashing the same clown car. When the Covid outbreak escalated in February, once again in the autumn, and once again before Christmas, scientists and medics warned that we needed to lock down. Each time, Johnson tried to ignore them and pressed on until the car hit the wall or his foot hit the banana skin, and he went cartwheeling through the air carrying the country with him
At the start of the pandemic, Michael J Ryan of the World Health Organisation said:
‘The lesson I have learned after so many Ebola outbreaks in my career are be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly…If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. The greatest error is not to move.’
Yet this government has never moved fast enough. It thought the pandemic would be over by the summer or by Christmas and now, Johnson has suggested, by Easter. It engaged in the absurd pretence that we could have a cheap meal on Rishi Sunak to celebrate Covid’s passing, and then had to close down the country again. It thought it could have the perfection of protecting the economy and public health and ended up doing neither. Why?
It’s not as if the public does not understand the need for tough measures. The cumulative Covid death toll is now heading past 75.000 and will doubtless hit 100,000. If you don’t know someone who has died, you will know someone who has been grievously ill. YouGov found yesterday that 79 per cent of people surveyed supported a new lockdown while only 16 per cent opposed one.
I could explain the failure to act by citing the Prime Minister’s egregious faults: his laziness, the mendacity that led Rory Stewart to describe him as ‘the most accomplished liar in public life’ and his pathetic willingness to please. They would be intolerable vices for a leader in normal times. They are a threat to the nation’s security in a crisis. Yet pleasurable and essential though it is, harping on about Johnson is too easy. I and other anti-Tory journalists have attacked his faults so many times we could write our condemnations in our sleep. But our preoccupation with the Prime Minister’s failings risks missing the wider damage caused by the hopelessly fractured right.
I am making a guess here but the 16 per cent of people who oppose a lockdown are likely to be conservatives in the broadest sense. The honourable explanation for their hostility is that the right cares more about civil liberties than the left, and there may be truth in that.
Less palatable for conservatives to accept is that no one on the left, whatever fantasies they might possess, can contemplate allowing the NHS to be overwhelmed. They cannot diminish Covid, as some right-wing commentators have diminished it, by implying we should not worry about it overmuch because it almost always kills the over-60s or patients with existing medical conditions. Nor can the overwhelming majority of the population and many Conservative politicians and supporters. (Conservative voters are more likely to be over-60 and more likely to be frightened, after all.)
The brute political fact remains, however, that opposition to Covid restrictions has come almost exclusively from the Conservative party and Nigel Farage and his supporters on the wider right. To quote one example from many, in November, Johnson had to reassure Conservative rather than Labour or nationalist MPs that he had ‘every reason’ to believe ‘the worst is nearly behind us’ – and how well those words read today.
He was trying to head off the only organised opposition to stricter public health measures in Parliament. It came in the form of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group, formed to oppose restrictions. Its members are Tory MPs just as attacks on public health measures in the media almost exclusively come from right-wing commentators and outlets. The historian Tim Bale coined the useful phrase ‘the party in the media’ to emphasise how closely Conservative politicians must attend to the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and indeed this fine magazine.
Boris Johnson is, of course, as much a creation of the Conservative media as Conservative MPs. But the point I think is being missed is that any Conservative prime minister would have been forced to appease the denialist wing of right-wing opinion in politics and the press.
As a thought experiment, imagine an alternative Britain where Boris Johnson was not prime minister and the country had a choice between Jeremy Hunt and Keir Starmer to lead us through the pandemic. On paper, Hunt looks the better candidate. He spent years as Health Secretary and knows the NHS as well as any politician in Westminster. But Starmer would still be the better choice. Whatever he thought privately, Hunt would have to cope with the civil war on the right, which had already destroyed the premierships of David Cameron and Theresa May, and appease his enemies by dithering and delaying as Johnson has done.
By all means carry on laying into Johnson, if you wish. I intend to carry on myself. But do not miss the wider problem. Britain’s tragedy is that it was hit by a pandemic at a time when its Conservative ruling class was too divided to cope with it effectively.