The politics of the plague

Boris Johnson may already have waited fatally long


Life will go on and politics will go on. It didn’t stop for world wars and it won’t stop for pandemics. But just as wars with their parliamentary coalitions and suspensions of elections proved supremely tricky ground for politicians to negotiate, so too will the politics of the plague. Onto this terrain steps Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as leader of the opposition. What will death and disease do for Labour?

In the absence of Covid-19, British domestic politics would have reset with the election of Labour’s new leader. As something no one saw coming — the party’s capture by the far-left cell fronted by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell — came to an inglorious end, something like normality was expected to return. Instead of having to cultivate Marxist sects, political journalism can revert to dealing with “PLU”: sensible, centrist, mainstream, moderate, non-ideological people. Sir Keir Starmer, as the former Director of Public Prosecutions and unbending, Good European, even onto the point of electoral oblivion, is emblematic to the point of parody. He is the modern establishment in Brylcreemed form.

Although the virus will displace reflection on Labour’s disgrace, we should not forget the shameful state of British politics that saw the party Corbyn led officially investigated for antisemitism. Never mind his and his allies’ repeated “solidarity” with terrorists. That this happened in an age where prejudice detection has been refined to levels of performative hysteria was noticeable for two things: the absolute refusal of the hard left to act by their own anti-racist precepts, and, rather more disquietingly, the absolute complicity of Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s successors. All those Labour MPs who remained in the party demonstrably went along with this disgrace by virtue of not leaving such a soiled body.

Questions will be asked about the British response to Covid-19. Why did we think it would not come? Why did we not act sooner?

Hardened cynics inside the Parliamentary Labour Party will doubtless reckon that by sticking it out they ultimately “won”: Corbyn was overthrown, albeit by the public, and is to be replaced by someone utterly conventional. Why then should they, by their lights, have abandoned the formal party machine to the essentially anti-Labour left which has been running it for five years? The problem with such cynicism is that it is short-term and easy. Of course, now, the PLP reverts to type. But it’s all too possible to imagine how the Tory implosion over Brexit could have led to an election where the 2017 result was repeated in still worse form for them. Corbyn and his profoundly disturbing friends could have made it to the top of the state just as they had so unexpectedly made it to the top of the Labour Party they had for so long, and apparently so irrelevantly, plagued. This was a monumental risk not worth taking. It was also one entirely dependent upon the collaboration of men like Keir Starmer.

Labour’s new leader will inherit a PLP where perhaps up to a quarter of its members owe ideological loyalty to the doctrinal obsessions of a Corbyn or a McDonnell. Some will rat and serve the new leader as Sir Keir served his predecessor. He should reflect on the nature of that sort of loyalty.

Much as politics will and must endure, in our system governments will continue to lose elections rather more than oppositions win them. Is the current government on course to do that for Keir Starmer’s Labour? Fortunate as they are in terms of having just had an election and gained a secure majority, questions will be asked about the British response to Covid-19. Why did we think it would not come? If we did think it would come, why did we not act sooner? What should acting sooner have amounted to? Was there a tendency to appease China evident in her not being quarantined from the rest of the world?

Why has testing not been as widespread and as early as it could have been? If we have moved no further and no faster than we feasibly could have done, what does this say about our public healthcare system? Is it in fact “the envy of the world” or is the NHS peculiarly incapable of coping with the demands to come? If the aged cohort which needs to be reassured and protected most was exactly the demographic which would have benefited most from televised press conferences, what exactly stayed the government’s hand? Given the palpable necessity of more ventilators being produced, why is the government scrabbling round to find manufacturing capability only now? The answers to these questions will result in a Royal Commission at best — and at worst, death and political destruction.

Lives and political fortunes are on the line. If this is the war adroit politicians abroad like President Macron have characterised it as being, winning will be the only test which counts. Keir Starmer for one has shown himself to be both lucky and prepared to wait. Boris Johnson needs more luck than ever but cannot afford to wait. He may already have waited fatally long.

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