After the last few years of political turmoil, Westminster can’t break the habit of waiting for the latest poll to come out. But the polls at the moment are in stasis. As I say in the magazine this week, there is neither the rally round the flag effect seen during the first wave but nor is there a decisive shift to the opposition.
So, the question becomes: how will the public feel at the end of this crisis? One immediate problem for the government — highlighted by the row over free school meals in the holidays — is that people resent having things taken away from them. It will be very politically challenging when the government has to roll back all the emergency financial support that has been put in place during the pandemic, particularly as there won’t be any grand, definitive ‘Victory over Covid’ day. Rather there will be a gradual return to normal as testing, therapeutics and then, with any luck, a vaccine begin to make a difference. Many people will feel that support should continue until the economy returns to its pre-Covid ways. But the painful truth is that there will almost certainly be permanent adjustments to the economy because of this crisis.
Perhaps the greater challenge for the Tories, though, is how to keep in touch with the spirit of the times. One would normally expect an event like this to move politics in a collectivist direction. In terms of interventions in the economy and restrictions on liberty, the response to Covid has not been unlike a war of national survival. In the last century the two world wars created the modern welfare state, and it is easy to see how Covid could create a permanently larger state, especially since the virus is highlighting inequalities that already existed in this country. The question for the Tories is how to come up with authentically centre-right solutions to these problems: how do they avoid being dragged into a debate about ever-higher spending that they will never be able to win? They need a vision for ‘levelling up’ that is about increasing productivity in deprived regions, not just building new schools and hospitals.