During his time in City Hall, Boris Johnson managed to be all things to all people. He called for an amnesty for 400,000 illegal immigrants. He backed the London living wage but also managed to keep the City happy. His opponents on the left found it difficult to attack him as a result. But if his success back then was a result of his liberal tendencies and his ability to be 'carefree', the pandemic appears to have changed Boris's political convictions. He could pay a big price if he fails to find his old self again.
As Prime Minister, Boris's liberal side has barely reared its head. Of course, a big reason for this is the pandemic, which has resulted in the imposition of policies, such as lockdown, which would scarcely have seemed believable when Boris won his landslide election victory in December 2019. Dealing with Covid has required big government with a slight authoritarian bent. But when Covid finally goes away, can carefree Boris make a comeback?
The early signs are not good. This week, Boris played down the effect that vaccines had had on the drop in infections, hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid, talking up instead the effect of lockdown:
‘It is very, very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in these numbers - in hospitalisations and in deaths and infections - has not been achieved by the vaccination programme. People don't, I think, appreciate that it's the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement in the pandemic and in the figures that we're seeing.’
What Boris said certainly seems plausible: the effect of vaccinations would have taken time to lower any of the above factors significantly, meaning the third lockdown was probably crucial.
Nonetheless it seems to stand against all of Boris's instincts for him to talk down one of his government’s great triumphs. It's clear that the PM wants people to emerge from lockdown in a way that does not undo the gains that have been made and result in a third wave. But is this level of public caution really necessary at this stage?
It all makes me wonder where liberal Boris has fled to. Every time he has had the gumption to cry freedom in the last few months, he ends up backing down in some form or another in the weeks that follow.
We were told in February that, on 21 June, so long as all the critical numbers continue to fall, we will have freedom; Covid restrictions would for the most part become a thing of the past. Yet only a few weeks later, there is talk of vaccine passports and ongoing testing.
It's clear that Boris feels uncomfortable about these things because he refuses to have a full and frank discussion about them. Instead he prefers to allude to them and hope these policies won't be associated with him. This won't work.
While there might be a good case for these measures, the unwillingness to have a proper debate about their implications is deeply troubling. As every good liberal knows, once a government grabs certain powers, getting them to let go again proves tricky. For a lot of the crisis, Boris's critics have condemned him for going too far. During the peak of the Covid waves, that charge seemed implausible. But is that still the case?
Many of Boris's own MPs don't think so. As a result, we will soon reach a point – and it’s probably not far off – when the libertarian wing of the Conservative party comes to the end of its patience with authoritarian measures that seem increasingly harsh against the background of low and falling infection rates. There will probably even come a stage when the Labour party stops backing these measures (although, I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one).
Boris has to take this into consideration, particularly given his ongoing popularity to some extent relies on his ability to move us on from this crisis and back to some semblance of normal. Is Boris, a politician stung personally by Covid and shaken in his liberal credentials by the impact of this pandemic, able to help Britain move on?
The Prime Minister needs to soon start convincing us that he is, not scaring everyone about vaccine passports and hinting at possible new lockdowns. If Boris needs inspiration, he could look back to a certain two-term mayor of London who understood how to balance liberalism and statism to create a winning formula.