Katy Balls

Why MPs are talking about a government of national unity again

Why MPs are talking about a government of national unity again
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The idea of a government of national unity appeared to have died when Boris Johnson won a decisive majority of 80 in the December snap election. Prior to that, it was a topic that frequently dominated Theresa May's premiership and the beginning of Johnson's. Proponents argued that a government formed of senior figures from each party (sometimes sharing similar views) would be best placed to solve the Brexit conundrum.

With Brexit wars now a distant memory thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the idea has re-entered public debate over the government's handling of the virus outbreak. A number of commentators have called in recent days for Johnson to be replaced by a team of experienced politicians from across the divide. While this is pie in the sky, a number of Tory MPs are now discussing the merits of some kind of cross party government for a short period of time. The former minister George Freeman has said that a 'covid coalition' government could become unavoidable if the situation worsens. Privately Tory MPs are raising the idea as a way to in effect share the burden (and blame) for a worsening public health crisis. 

While a YouGov poll – taken before the PM's statement – suggests the Prime Minister's popularity is rising as a result of his handling of the crisis (with Johnson's net favourability into positive territory for the first time since he became Prime Minister), within government there is an expectation that things could escalate quickly as the number of fatalities rises. No. 10 staff believe they are in this for the long haul. Johnson's address to the nation on Monday saw the government bring in measures they had been considering for weeks. 

Now that's been decided there will be a forthcoming communications push to make sure each individual knows what is expected of them. Regardless, the next few weeks will be the most challenging as the coronavirus death toll rises and the public's resolve is tested. Matt Hancock's appearance at the Tuesday press conference revealed how bad the government expects things to get – with a new hospital to open to deal with the coming influx in cases – already many London intensive care units are reported to be overwhelmed.

For now there are no plans to offer Labour a more serious decision making role in all of this. The view is that the Tories have already tried to strike a non-partisan by for example  liaising with the unions on Treasury worker packages. At the Cobra meetings, there is already a cross-party presence with Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan present (though an example of the issues of such an arrangement can be found here). 

Yet the possibility of some form of national government cannot be ruled out entirely. Parliament rises today and won't return until late April at the earliest. If the coronavirus pandemic escalates, runs on indefinitely and the UK is in some form of lockdown for a whole year making it hard for MPs to meet, more broad based decision making will likely be considered.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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