Boris Johnson used to be defined by his commitment to having his cake and eating it. But now he isn’t having any cake, let alone getting a chance to enjoy it. He is in a hideously difficult position as he tries to balance the needs of public health and the economy. There are no good choices. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Since the end of the first lockdown, the government’s policy has been to try to control the virus without shutting down the economy. This is becoming increasingly difficult. Sage minutes — which, in a very poorly timed release, were published just after the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, held a press conference to set out the new tiered system of restrictions — revealed that the scientists were keen on a so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown on 21 September. The Prime Minister rejected this advice.
If Johnson had gone for the circuit-breaker option back in September then he would not only have hammered the economy but also invited a full-on confrontation with his own MPs. His parliamentary allies fretted about how quickly this could have escalated. It is worth noting that 42 Tory MPs, enough to wipe out the government’s majority with the opposition’s support, voted against the government on a far milder set of measures on Tuesday. The rebellion against a circuit-breaker in September would have been far larger than that.
Keir Starmer is seeking to drive a wedge between Boris Johnson and his back-benchers. On Tuesday night, Starmer called for a two-to-three-week circuit break in England, saying that Johnson shouldn’t worry about Tory opposition as Labour would vote for it. Starmer’s intervention has, one Boris loyalist on the backbenches tells me, prompted a certain ‘closing of the tribal ranks’. But this MP warns that it is now ‘very dangerous for Boris to change his mind’ and opt for something so close to a second national lockdown.
Johnson is not alone in his rejection of scientific advice. In Ireland, Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar baulked at the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), their equivalent of Sage, to move the country from Level 2 restrictions to Level 5, close to a full lockdown. Instead, they moved it to Level 3.
The Irish row played out on TV and radio in real time. Leo Varadkar said that the idea ‘hadn’t been thought through properly’ and that when the NPHET couldn’t give an assurance that the circuit break would last for only four weeks, the government decided against it. He also pointedly criticised the scientists, saying that it was easy for them with their public sector jobs to propose tighter restrictions, as they weren’t at risk of losing their jobs or having to lay people off. It was one of the most explicit explorations so far of the public-private sector divide when it comes to the consequences of Covid rules.
Tory MPs, including many who had regarded Varadkar as the villain of the Brexit process, privately heaped praise on him for his stance. But because the British discussions took place behind closed doors and Johnson never publicly set out his reasons for rejecting Sage’s advice, he got little credit from his own side for the position he took. By the time it became certain that he had rejected Sage’s recommendation of far greater restrictions, Tory MPs had moved on to complaining about other things. Indeed, Johnson took two steps following the Sage warning: he once more urged people to work from home and introduced a 10 p.m. curfew for pubs. Sage was not enthusiastic about the early closing time, having ‘low confidence’ that it would make much difference. Many Tory MPs were against it too. In short, the compromise ended up pleasing almost nobody.
The new tiered system of regional restrictions has led to more unhappiness from Tory backbenchers. When Johnson outlined the measures in the Commons on Monday afternoon, he was met with a barrage of sceptical questions from his own side. Many Tory MPs are keen to argue that their constituencies have been placed in the wrong category. Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield and a former chief whip, echoed Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, when he expressed his anger that parts of the region had been placed in the high-risk category, rather than medium, which he believed more appropriate. Caroline Ansell, the MP for Eastbourne, pushed for more hyper-localised restrictions, so that constituencies with low incidence of the virus wouldn’t be caught up in region-wide rules. Chris Green, MP for Bolton West, resigned as a parliamentary private secretary in protest against the ‘extreme’ lockdown of Greater Manchester. To further complicate the situation, Labour MPs are looking for any sign that Tory seats are being favoured when it comes to deciding where these restrictions start and stop.
But if many Tory MPs are worried that the restrictions are too tight, Chris Whitty has the opposite concern. At Monday night’s televised briefing he made clear that he doesn’t think that the tiered restrictions on their own are enough to get on top of the virus. He encouraged local public health officials to recommend layering rules on top of those being imposed by the national government. From his answers, it was clear that Whitty thinks everything apart from schools should be considered for lockdown.
Starmer’s decision to call for a circuit-breaker lockdown has further raised the stakes, because it marks an end to the major parties’ consensus on how to handle Covid. If the death toll this winter is high, Labour will claim that had Johnson ‘followed the science’ and gone for the circuit-breaker option fewer people would have died. Equally, if he goes for it and there are still many excess deaths, people will ask what the point was. Even if the number of excess deaths is low, there will be questions about whether it was really necessary.
In his criticisms of the government’s strategy, Starmer also focused on the problems with track and trace. His aim is to persuade people that they are subject to these restrictions only because of government incompetence, and track and trace is an easy target. Among Tory MPs there is growing anger at its failings. One described the £12 billion project as a ‘Rolls Royce price for a Morris Minor with no engine’.
This country is far from alone in struggling to work out how to deal with Covid — the Dutch have gone into ‘partial lockdown’ this week. But Johnson faces political challenge on both sides. He is no longer simply ‘following the science’ but making his own judgments on what is the best approach. The success or otherwise of his strategy will determine the future of his premiership.
spectator.co.uk/podcast - James Forsyth and Conservative Home editor Paul Goodman on the challenges Boris faces.