In a non-Covid world, next week would be Tory conference in Birmingham. As I say in the magazine this week, it would have been a triumphalist conference with much talk of how the Tories had won a two-term victory.
Covid has changed everything, though. Tory conference is now an online only event with short speeches. The Tories are now behind Labour for the first time since Johnson became leader, albeit only in one poll. His backbenchers are becoming more rebellious. More than 50 of them signed the Brady amendment – which calls for parliamentary votes before nationwide Covid restrictions are introduced – enough to wipe out the government’s majority if it had come to vote. In short, it feels very much like mid-term despite the fact it is less than a year since the general election.
Johnson’s allies are quick to point out that this government is facing challenges unlike those faced by any post-war government. In many ways, the fact the Tories tend still to be ahead in the polls is the remarkable thing.
Johnson’s stated strategy is to suppress the virus until there is a vaccine. There is confidence in both the Department of Health and Downing Street that by March there will either be a vaccine or a breakthrough on rapid, mass testing. The government has secured access to six of the leading vaccine candidates so if one does come off, the UK should be in a good position. In these circumstances, Johnson would still have almost four years left before the next general election. He would have a chance to reposition himself as the man who can boost the country’s morale.
But if there is no vaccine and the virus doesn’t become less potent, things will become very difficult for the government. The mood in the Tory parliamentary party will become bleak if restrictions are still needed once winter has passed. Questions will be asked about how viable a strategy of suppression is in these circumstances. More and more Tory MPs would start to argue that there needs to be a different, more Swedish approach. For Johnson, the question now is whether his calculation that the cavalry will arrive in the Spring is correct and whether he has the plan to galvanise the nation for the rebuilding effort that will be needed once this pandemic has passed.