Politics is full of events that are meant to change everything but actually do little. Yet the coronavirus crisis will be one of those rare events that does have lasting political impact. This disease, and its aftermath, will change how the country works.
Covid-19 has already directly affected every household, business and institution in the country in a way that not even the 2008 financial crash did. Boris Johnson’s government will now be defined by how it handles both the crisis and its aftermath.
Before he went into isolation, Johnson remarked to Downing Street aides that he was keen to get back to the agenda on which he had been elected. This virus has so changed the landscape now, though, that there will be no easy return to the world before corona. One normally understated Downing Street figure predicts it will ‘change things for a generation’.
The question for the government is whether it wishes to attempt to return to what went before or to try to combine its various agendas — ‘levelling up’, Brexit and net zero — in its post-coronavirus reconstruction job. Currently, all the signs point to the latter. ‘We’re emphatic that we’re not interested in the status quo ante,’ says one cabinet minister.
David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, after holding talks with the First Secretary of State Dominic Raab and other senior ministers, has confirmed that the UK will not seek an extension to the Brexit transition period. The thinking is that a delay would not solve the fundamental policy challenges and that a Brexit deal is either possible or not. Another factor is that the government worries about the cost of any extension. There is concern that extending could drag the UK into the arguments about who pays for the various EU schemes designed to protect the European economy and preserve the eurozone.
There is also a desire not to abandon the government’s commitments to infrastructure projects. One of Johnson’s closest allies argues that the Prime Minister will have little truck with the idea of ditching or postponing them, since he believes them to be vital to delivering economic growth.
The Tory party that emerges from this crisis will be different from what came before, but the Brexit referendum, the transformation of the Tories into a Leave party, and the ‘red wall’ seats that they gained in December were already changing it. The government’s response to coronavirus has catalysed changes to the party that were already in motion.
Tory modernisers have long wanted the party to be unequivocal about its commitment to the NHS. In 2006, David Cameron declared that you could sum up his priorities in three letters: ‘NHS.’ This was given emotional resonance by his family’s dependence on the health service. But the NHS remains the Conservatives’ greatest electoral vulnerability: Tory strategists worried that it was the one issue that could cost them the last election. It was no coincidence that their biggest wobble of the campaign was caused by Johnson’s evident unease at being shown a photo of a child being treated on a hospital floor.
But Johnson himself now has an emotional connection with the NHS that few people have. As he said in that extraordinary video, it saved his life. The accusation that he isn’t personally committed to the health service just won’t work against him now. (At the last election when Johnson was pressed on when he last used the NHS, he talked about getting glass in his foot at a BBQ.)
Even before the coronavirus crisis, Johnson’s No. 10 had been determined to change how voters perceived the Tories’ attitude to the health service. The Brexit referendum had persuaded Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings that the NHS was one of the issues, if not the issue, that voters cared about most. In the rest of this parliament, more will be spent on the NHS than would have happened before.
Covid-19, by showing that no hospital is an island, has accelerated the move away from the Lansley reforms issued by the coalition government. ‘We’re going back to more of the Nye Bevan model, where the Health Secretary could hear the bed pans clanging on the ward floor,’ says one cabinet member. This crisis also means the end of NHS independence. It will now be run from Whitehall as a system.
Coronavirus will also make the Tories deal with an issue that they have avoided since it cost Theresa May her majority in 2017: social care. As one government source puts it: ‘If this doesn’t trigger action on social care, nothing will.’ Allies of the Prime Minister believe he now has ‘the leeway to act on it’.
This period will alter how the Tory party defines who is, and isn’t, a key worker. The points-style immigration system that the government devised at the beginning of the year, in crude terms, equated value with wages. But the lockdown has been a reminder that many of those who make the country function are on relatively low pay. There is a sense in government that the policy might have to adjust to this reality.
The indispensability of often low-paid workers, in both the private and public sectors, in these past few weeks will further accentuate the recent trend of Tory party support for higher minimum wages (a rise from £5.80 an hour when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 to £8.72 today for every-one over 25). One of those close to the Prime Minister says that one of the questions the Tories will need to answer at the end of this crisis is: what is your new contract with the key workers of this country? A part of that is going to have to be higher wages.
The Tory party will emerge from this period as a more ‘communitarian party’. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, declared at a recent press conference that everything the government has done during this crisis has been motivated by the ‘simple idea that we depend on each other’. The difficulty for the Tories is how to channel this feeling of national solidarity in ways that don’t simply lead to a bigger state and higher spending.
The challenge of Brexit meant that this was going to be a consequential government. But it now finds itself having to refashion the state and the economy in even more fundamental ways.
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