The prime minister is “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley” – a phrase he used to describe how he was making up his mind on Europe, in or out, a few months before the referendum.
At his news conference yesterday, he said it was time to “squeeze that brake pedal” to keep the coronavirus under control. Perhaps his shopping trolley is like one of those airport or station luggage trolleys with brakes. Many of this morning’s headlines screamed that he was “slamming on the brakes”, which was more dramatic than the impression of a judicious course correction that Boris Johnson wanted to give.
At best, though, he seems inconsistent. Yesterday he confirmed the reimposition of rules against social mixing in parts of northwest England, delayed the return of wedding receptions and added to the list of places where face coverings should be worn. As for children returning to school in 10 days’ time in Scotland and a month’s time in England, that was downgraded to “something that we aim to deliver”.
At the same time, the guidelines on shielding the most vulnerable are still lifted today, while the government is going to subsidise everyone to go out to restaurants from Monday, which seems like pressing the accelerator at the same time as squeezing the brake.
Partly, the appearance of erratic policy is inevitable if you say you will follow the advice of the scientists. Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has looked at the latest figures and changed his assessment of the situation. The government has to respond immediately or explain to the public inquiry why it didn’t.
This public inquiry is like the medieval idea of judgement day. It is real – the prime minister confirmed in the House of Commons that it would happen – and it is imminent, although no one knows when it will be. But everyone acts as if it is in constant session, and every action has to be justified in the privacy of confession, otherwise known as “writing things down to be used in my defence later”.
That means there is no time to prepare public opinion for sudden changes of policy – no time for “spin”. Which puts the government’s critics – and especially the official opposition – in an awkward position. Many of those people who complained that it was “chaotic” to announce with a few hours’ notice that holidaymakers returning from Spain would have to isolate for 14 days were in effect saying they wanted the government to ignore the evidence and lie to them about the risk.
It was remarkable how quickly the idea spread that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, had announced the new measures for the northwest “on Twitter”, as if there were something wrong in using the fastest and most effective means of communicating news. In fact, Hancock recorded a televised announcement first, which was used by all the main broadcasters.
In both cases – Spanish quarantine and the northwestern partial lockdown – people complained that the measures were announced at the wrong time: late at night. But this is the same public opinion that demands that politicians follow the science and would turn on them unforgivingly if they delayed acting even for a few hours without good reason.
It seems extraordinary, when Johnson seemed to be so obviously contradicting himself yesterday, that he remains as popular as he is. His personal ratings are negative, but not disastrously so: 36 per cent still approve of the way he is handling his job as prime minister (45 per cent disapprove). That is not bad for a midterm leader whose handling of a national crisis is so harshly judged.
Keir Starmer’s ratings are better (44 per cent approve, 22 disapprove, and a lot say “neither”), but not only are Johnson and Starmer about equal when voters are asked who they prefer as prime minister, but the Conservatives remain in the lead when people are asked how they would vote.
It may be that people recognise, at some level, that Johnson is trying to do what they want him to do, even if it seems a bit disorganised and someone they know has had to cancel a wedding.
And Starmer is stuck with the majority of public opinion, which was always nervous about easing the lockdown too early. So when the prime minister squeezes the brakes, all Labour is left with is complaining that the changes have been announced in the wrong way – that, and that taxpayer subsidies haven’t been extended to this or that group who are suffering.
Starmer is further locked into supporting Johnson and Hancock because they have taken the basic precaution of consulting Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, who supports the new measures.
The big political argument over how to get out of the fiscal hole left by coronavirus is yet to come. That may shift public opinion. Until then, Johnson may seem like a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel, but Starmer cannot overtake him.