OPINION - The Covid crisis is the last, desperate fig leaf for a wounded Boris Johnson

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 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

It is one of the bleakest ironies of Boris Johnson’s long and turbulent career that he should have become politically dependent upon the very pandemic that has thwarted or postponed so many of his plans and grandiose projects.

Consider the cycle of his relationship with Covid over the past two years. When the infection first struck these shores in January 2020, the Prime Minister was famously insouciant, absent from the bridge, slow to respond.

As we have learned from the testimony of Dominic Cummings, his insouciance was quickly supplanted by exasperation at the sheer inconvenience of the virus and its absorption of all his government’s energies.

In April 2020, it nearly cost him his life. Last December, it seemed possible that it might yet cost him his job, as nearly 100 Conservative MPs rebelled against the (comparatively modest) “Plan B” restrictions.

In principle, Johnson should be praying that the Omicron variant is, indeed, Covid’s last hurrah, and the final act of this horrible drama. The number of reported daily cases remains high (157,758 yesterday); but this has yet to translate into an overwhelming surge in hospitalisations or fatalities.

In London, there are provisional signs that the rate of infection may be in decline, or at least levelling off — 314 Covid patients were admitted to the capital’s hospitals on January 1, a 28 per cent fall from the 437 admitted last Monday.

Yet, even if this pattern persists (as we must fervently hope), the scale of disruption in the weeks ahead remains formidable. On the very day that most Britons are meant to be returning to work, one million are in self-isolation. This is already hitting hospitals, education, transport, refuse collections and other public services.

Cancelled commuter services, piles of bin bags and badly disrupted supply chains entrench the impression of a society barely holding it together — all of which tarnishes the Government’s reputation for basic competence.

Yet herein lies the paradox. According to an Ipsos MORI poll last month, 84 per cent think that the Government has done a good job at rolling out the vaccine — compared, for example, with only 17 per cent who say the same about its “levelling up” strategy.

As exhausted as the public undoubtedly is by Covid, it remains willing to give the Government the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its pandemic strategy. Not so in any other area of policy. In a brutal twist, the management of the crisis (however flawed) has become a last, desperate fig leaf for an administration with a shambolic record.

More specifically, none of the circling sharks in the Cabinet dares take a chunk out of the wounded PM while he is still leading the battle against the virus. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are almost flagrantly on manoeuvres, yet as long as Covid tops the news bulletins, the likelihood of a confidence vote in Johnson’s leadership remains small.

No party serious about remaining in government can afford to indulge in a very public beauty contest. For the Tories to do so in early 2022 would seal the electorate’s worst impressions: that this supposedly populist government is fatally out of touch.

As one very senior figure close to the PM puts it: “It’s horrible, really, but the truth is that Boris is safe as long as Covid lasts. When it’s over, anything could happen.” In practice, this means — grotesquely — that he needs the crisis to last until at least the local elections on May 5, in which the Tories expect to suffer grievous losses.

Such is the perverse trap in which Johnson now finds himself. He is politically shackled to the very pandemic that, back in March 2020, he so desperately wanted to end in 12 weeks.

Covid, supposedly his greatest political affliction, has become one of his few remaining allies.

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