Could Britain be heading for a second lockdown? Boris Johnson says his government is doing 'everything in our power' to prevent one, but failed to rule it out if coronavirus cases don't stop rising. Yet even if the Prime Minister does end up ordering Britain back indoors, it's worth asking whether he has the political capital to carry out such an order. Amidst a stormy few weeks in which the PM has alienated both wings of his own party, angered the frontrunner to become the next US president and been blasted by most of the press, I'm not convinced.
When the first lockdown happened in March, there was a lot of goodwill throughout the country for both the idea of locking down and the government’s handling of the crisis. People were scared of a novel virus that had suddenly appeared from nowhere, and even those who were politically prejudiced towards disliking a Tory government were suddenly rooting for this one, at least as far as Covid went. Things are very different now, for every portion of the electorate as well as the parliamentary Conservative party.
When the first lockdown was called, some Tory MPs were unsure about it, as you would expect. This was a very serious step that would have unknowably negative effects on the British economy. Yet Boris was still very much in his honeymoon period. Combined with assurances from the PM that the lockdown was unavoidable, would be brief and normality would be resumed within weeks, the Conservative parliamentary party backed the PM.
We’re almost six months on and life is far from what would have been seen as anything like routine in the pre-Covid days for most people in Britain. Added to this, the Tory base has become more anti-lockdown the longer the crisis has dragged on, for both economic and libertarian reasons; this is filtering through to MPs. It's true Boris still enjoys a healthy majority but this shift in thinking makes imposing another lockdown extremely difficult politically for Boris.
Your average voter is less vocal about questioning the government’s Covid measures. Another nationwide lockdown is likely to be grudgingly accepted by most. But this doesn't mean that Brits still feel positive about the government or willing to give the PM the benefit of the doubt. And that is before we get into the question of schools remaining open; the word in Westminster at present seems to be that schools will not be shut down again, no matter what, yet one has to wonder how long they would be able to continue on in the face of another lockdown or a continued spike in cases. The government realises it would be starting to dangerously annoy parts of its core vote with schools shutting once down again. But it seems unfeasible to order a new lockdown while continuing to allow kids to go to school. The logic of it would unravel very quickly.
If there is widespread flouting of the restrictions after the lockdown is called, how would the government handle this? Priti Patel’s line about phoning the cops if the rule of six is seen to be broken by neighbours has played badly with every section of the electorate, yet you have to ask, what else could the Home Secretary have said? That the rules don’t matter?
The first lockdown and indeed almost all measures the government has imposed since the Covid crisis took hold – from mask wearing to personal quarantines – have only worked as well as they have because most people have listened. After all, the government lacks both the resource and the political will to crack down heavily on those who fail to go along with restrictions. They have mostly relied on occasionally heavy-handed rhetoric up to this point, such as Boris’ bit on 'Covid marshals', in the hope that it keeps the show on the road. If a second general lockdown was imposed and thousands – or even tens of thousands – decided to ignore it, what would or more to the point, could the government do?
The timing of all of this couldn’t be worse for Boris either; just as the talks with the EU look to be breaking down completely, he might have to impose a measure that most people won’t like and will be jumped upon as a failure by both the media and the official opposition. He might try instead to simply call for more and more local lockdowns as a means of getting around this problem. Yet I don’t see that working either. Boris is running out of options here. He may have to impose a second lockdown that will be politically catastrophic for him.