As the tide of coronavirus swells again, Boris Johnson heads into a perfect storm

Andrew Rawnsley
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Hundreds of thousands volunteered to help their neighbours. Millions joined the weekly clap for carers. Tens of millions complied with the government’s instructions when it dramatically deprived them of some of their most basic liberties.

When a national lockdown was imposed towards the end of March, the country was exhorted to think of it as a collective endeavour. Speaking live to a massive TV audience, Boris Johnson declared: “We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.” This was, in many senses, highly artificial. The dangers posed by the coronavirus and the sacrifices demanded to control it have never been evenly shared. There was nevertheless a palpable sense at the time of the first wave that people wanted to unify in the face of an invisible menace.

In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement, more than 90% of the population backed the restrictions on their lives. The Tory leader enjoyed a big surge in his personal approval ratings. Even among many who had not voted for him, there was a desire to want him to be a good prime minister in this crisis. For a while, he was much more popular than he had been at the time of the December election. Keir Starmer, anxious not to put Labour on the wrong side of the national mood, pledged to be “constructive”. The media, also nervous about running foul of public opinion, largely gave the government the benefit of the doubt. Tory libertarians muttered darkly when the nation was barred from its boozers, but most kept their grumbles to themselves.

Seven months on, the coronavirus is surging again, hospital admissions have risen by 50% in just a week and the government may well be forced into something resembling another national lockdown before Christmas, but consensus has disintegrated. We are heading into what threatens to be a bleak winter, not with a spirit of national unity but with divisions on stark display. Between north and south. Between young and old. Between lives and livelihoods. Between those (a shrivelling band) who still invest faith in Mr Johnson and those (a now much larger group) who don’t. Between government and opposition. Between scientist and scientist. Between Westminster and local government. Between cabinet member and cabinet member. And between prime minister and his own party.

This fracturing is occurring across many faultlines and has several causes. The consensus during the first wave was sustained by the idea that the government would use the lockdown to ensure that the country was better equipped to deal with the virus by the time autumn came around. The prime minister explicitly made this his bargain with the public. “With the time you buy – by simply staying at home – we are increasing our stocks of equipment. We are accelerating our search for treatments. We are pioneering work on a vaccine. And we are buying millions of testing kits that will enable us to turn the tide on this invisible killer.”

It would not be fair to say that nothing has improved since he offered that compact with the public. Stocks of equipment have increased. Treatments have improved. The quest for a vaccine has advanced. There is more testing than there was. But it hasn’t been enough, nothing like enough. The tide of infection is swelling again and the government still has not built sea walls anything like capable of holding it back. At the heart of that failure is the lack of an adequate regime for testing, tracing and isolating. That, along with all the other blunders, has cost the government trust, credibility and authority.

A government can’t create a consensus behind tough decisions unless it commands confidence that it knows what it is doing. Mr Johnson started to lose the public some time ago. Voter approval of his handling of the crisis turned negative in mid-May and has been on a downward path since. Trust in the government has been exhausted not just by the many examples of ministerial ineptitude, but also by rule-breaking by public figures, notably the eye-testing excursions of Dominic Cummings. That’s been compounded by confused and contradictory communication.

Government can’t create a consensus behind tough decisions unless it commands confidence that it knows what it is doing

This weekend’s mess of cabinet wrangling, prime ministerial indecision and muddled messaging is over the plan to split England into three tiers, with differing severities of restriction depending on the region. This scheme leaked days ago, but it still has not been officially launched because the cabinet is split. “Will they announce something on Monday? God knows,” says one senior figure familiar with the battles within cabinet and inside Number 10. “I hope so. They must clear up all the confusion.” The north of England feels very harshly treated and not just because 15 million people have been under tighter restrictions for weeks while the south has enjoyed something closer to normal life. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, and other regional leaders rightly complain that Westminster keeps varying the rules by “Whitehall diktat” and they learn what the government intends not through consultation by ministers, but from newspapers.

Lockdown 2.0 would be easier for the government to sell to regional leaders, parliament and public, and more endurable for those affected, if it could be convincingly presented as part of a coherent strategy. “Where’s the plan?” demands one select committee chair. The introduction of a mass testing programme, checking everyone for the virus on a regular basis, would be one way to endure the crisis while minimising the damage to the economy and the risk to life. There is no sign of a mass testing programme. That “moonshot” hasn’t left the launch pad. The government is pinning all its hopes on a vaccine, but can’t say when it will be able to distribute one. It can’t absolutely guarantee that there will be a vaccine. This absence of strategy is also siphoning away consent. The continual sense is of a government flying blind by the seat of its ragged pants. That leaves the public demoralised and Tory MPs querulous. It emboldens those who argue that there is no point hanging on for a vaccine or mass testing so we will “just have to live with it”. Advice which, if followed, means more of us dying of it.

Divisions within the government’s ranks and the decay of public trust have led Labour to be much more muscular about prosecuting the government’s failures, which has a feedback loop effect back into opinion among voters and Conservative MPs. “Boris is getting into a perfect storm,” remarks one senior Tory. It is not the Labour party that most alarms Number 10. A general election is a long way off so Mr Starmer won’t get a chance to unseat Mr Johnson from Number 10 for some years. The greater sources of fear in Downing Street are mutinous Tory MPs and a Tory press which has turned hostile to the government.

There are dozens of dissident Conservative MPs who are already chafing against the current restrictions and will loathe the imposition of tighter ones. The libertarians, the economy-firsters and the let-it-rippers do not speak for most of the country, which is still broadly supportive of the view that you can’t take risks with public health. But though the Tory right are not representative of the nation, they can make dreadful trouble for Mr Johnson.

There are dozens of dissident Conservative MPs who are already chafing against the current restrictions

All Conservative prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher have lived in fear of the right of their party. Mutinous Tory MPs are encouraged by the Tory media, especially the Telegraph and the Mail, which are now gunning for the government as aggressively as they did for Theresa May as her premiership began to turn terminal. As one former Cabinet minister remarks: “Things always get very serious for a Conservative prime minister when they lose the rightwing press.”

This is warping the government’s tense internal debates about what to do next. It is no surprise that the cabinet is divided between those, led by the chancellor, who are most concerned to protect the economy and those, represented by the health secretary, who are most animated by the surging rates of infection. No one doubts that there are fiendishly challenging tradeoffs between protecting lives and limiting the harms caused by lockdowns. The big concern is that decision-making is being distorted by Number 10’s party management problems and that will result in bad outcomes. Several independent sources tell me the process has become polluted by Mr Johnson’s fright of revolt by the Tory right.

There is now no obvious decision that Mr Johnson can take that will keep all of his party happy, arrest the resurgence of the virus and reunify the country. Whatever he does now, there will be no consensus behind it.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer