The news that the local elections will go ahead as planned on 6 May has increased optimism in the Conservative parliamentary party about the roadmap out of lockdown. Despite rumours that the vote could be postponed on the grounds that Covid restrictions would prevent them from effectively campaigning, UK Constitution Minister Chloe Smith has said it will go ahead on the grounds that 'democracy should not be cancelled because of Covid'.
But MPs aren't just pleased because the vote is on. Several are taking it as a sign that the lockdown will be eased sooner rather than later. The Cabinet Office announcement said they were able to commit 'with confidence' to the elections going ahead as vulnerable groups and all those over 50 are expected to have received vaccines by May. This goes further than any previous public declaration — with ministers only saying up until now that the over-50s will be vaccinated by spring but refusing to give specific dates.
That idea of a firm May deadline has already had some pushback — the Prime Minister's spokesperson appeared to downplay the idea in a lobby briefing. However, this is more down to the fact No. 10 are keen not to 'overpromise and under deliver' so would rather play down expectations. 'No-one wants to say publicly that things are going well,' explains a government aide. 'But people are bullish about hitting the targets.'
Once the over-50s are vaccinated, all over 18s are expected to swiftly follow with the Telegraph reporting last month all adults could have the vaccine by the 'end of June'. While there has been much talk of sending vaccine doses abroad, one minister tells Coffee House that they are committed to making sure there are enough doses for the entire adult population. The local elections announcement suggests that things will be sufficiently relaxed by April that the party will be able to campaign in the build-up to polling day suggests that the lockdown will be eased substantially before the vote.
Meanwhile, a new study this week suggesting a single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can prevent transmission of the coronavirus by up to two-thirds. This announcement is adding to optimism within government that the situation could improve quickly once vaccination targets are hit. While several European countries — including France and Sweden — have this week advised against the Oxford vaccine being used on the elderly, so far the government has been restrained in its response to criticism of the UK strategy on the virus.
This is in part because they believe the science will soon speak for itself. Two studies are underway charting the effects of the virus on those who have been vaccinated. In a few weeks' time, ministers believe they'll be able to point to the effect of the Oxford vaccine in both immunity and transmission.
This touches on the other reason ministers are keen to press ahead with the May local elections: a potential vaccine boost. While few Tory politicians want to say it publicly, there is a growing sense that the political landscape is strongly turning in Johnson's favour. The successful vaccine programme (I report in the magazine this week on how it came to be) is a big part of this.
'It's helped to restore our reputation for competence,' says a Conservative MP. 'It's the political antidote to a lot of our problems,' says another. Adding to this is the EU's sluggish vaccination programme. 'It's helped to highlight just how impressive what the UK has done is,' says a MP from the 2019 intake.
Helping matters are Keir Starmer's recent difficulties — with the Labour leader facing increased criticism in the media over his performance — and Nicola Sturgeon's problems on SNP infighting and the pace of Scotland's vaccine rollout. Aides believe they are already beginning to see a vaccine boost in the polls and this will only grow if things stay on track.
While efforts within No. 10 to rebuild ties with the parliamentary party continue, this week's planned appearance from the Prime Minister's political secretary Ben Gascoigne was cancelled at the last minute — and rescheduled for next week.
There will need to be more engagement in the coming weeks. Broadly speaking the party is boosted by the vaccine rollout. But its success means several MPs believe a faster easing of lockdown is possible. 'There's a growing head of steam for things to come back but it's not boiling into anger yet,' explains one old-timer. 'A lot of us are waiting to see what the Prime Minister announces later this month on the plan to get out of lockdown.' Confirmation of local elections going ahead means that expectations are riding high.