Photographer: Julian Simmonds/The Daily Telegraph/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Normal politics resumes

From Hard Brexit to Soft Lockdown, Boris Johnson is keeping most of his natural support with him

“Lockdown Britain: It’s chaos” said the headline of Monday’s Daily Mirror. “It’s all Greek to us, Boris” announced Metro. “PM’s lockdown release leaves Britain confused and divided” proclaimed the Guardian. These salvoes mark the end of that brief outbreak of national unity – the British Spring – in which friend and foe (old terms for Leaver and Remainer/unionist and nationalist) found common purpose in protecting the NHS.

Not so long ago much of the nation feared for the prime minister’s life. But that was the other day. Now those who could only briefly stifle their repulsion had to endure what the acclaimed author Philip Pullman fumed was the sight of the prime minister “commandeer[ing] the TV in order to speak to the nation as if he was the supreme leader in a tinpot tyranny.”  An opposite but equally furious criticism was that the prime minister did not speak for long enough; the release of fuller guidelines the following afternoon represented an intolerable burden of expectation. “Chaos” if you will.

So now we are back in two camps. The hard lockdowners include those who always knew the Tories were callous desiccated calculating machines putting corporate profit before human lives but who had been briefly dumbfounded by the government’s seeming willingness to anesthetise the economy in order to protect the NHS. But last night’s permission to sunbathe, go for a drive or return to work in certain circumstances has cleared their conscience. They were right about the heartless Tories first time. Then there is the other camp, not all of whom are necessarily Tories or Boris worshipers, but who to varying degrees believe that the government is making a reasonable risk assessment that may not be spot on, but which accepts there is a floating exchange rate between public health and economic ruin, rather than a fixed rate set at a 100 to zero ratio.

For weeks, commentators have been calling on the prime minister to take back control from his water-treading cabinet and spell out the exit strategy. Now that he has done so, with a three-phase timeline that includes indicatives dates subject to R number evaluation, he is accused of confusing the message, sending mixed signals, and foolishly softening a hard lockdown that made us feel safe.

Critics complaining that the three-phase strategy is divisive are right. When the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland decide not to follow England’s lead, then that is a division. It is also, inconveniently, the logic of devolution. Critics are also correct in the sense that the consensus behind hard lockdown has diminished over soft lockdown. Sunday night’s snap YouGov/Good Morning Britain poll suggested those surveyed were almost evenly split (44/43 in favour) on the wisdom of the new measures. Previously, almost three-quarters had supported maintaining the hard lockdown.

Instant polls always come with a health warning and as the realities change so do the responses. On the one hand there now appears to be less unity on the road ahead. On the other hand, look how quickly the massive majority for keeping the full lockdown is crumbling? That rock-like certainty in the wisdom of a hard lockdown is shifting as perceptions change about risk. Also revealing is how few genuine sceptics there are – those who favour a major or instant relaxation of the lockdown remain a fringe. Outside contrarian circles in business, politics and centre-right publishing, there is no broad acknowledgement that the Swedes could have taught us a thing or two.

there is a floating exchange rate between public health and economic ruin, rather than a fixed rate set at a 100 to zero ratio.

Having come this far, many may be reluctant to dream there was ever a different path awaiting us. Instead we are sticking to the prescribed route, but differing over whether to follow the pace-setter or stick to the rhythm that feels more comfortable for us.

That comfort point is described in terms of being behind or ahead of the curve. Nicola Sturgeon defended her decision to maintain a hard lockdown on the grounds that Scotland is “a bit behind the curve” in transmission terms. The virus having spread to Scotland slightly later than to London, Scotland’s R number is believed to be somewhere between 0.7 and 1. UK-wide, the number is in the range of 0.6 and 0.9, so hardly a vast gulf across the River Tweed, but just enough to allow the first minister to emphasise it.

Also critical for the long term judgement call is which leader is ahead or behind the curve of the public’s perception of competing risks. If England proceeds to bask in weeks of returning business and daily life activity without filling its mothballed Nightingale hospitals, then Sturgeon’s caution – currently very popular among Scots – will begin to look less maternal and more that of a martinet. Whispered will be the question that no self-respecting Scot (or Welshman) wants to ask (“why can’t we be more like England?”). And if the answer is “because we’ve still got the virus worse than England” then that will beg the response to the devolved authorities, “well you run health here, so how do you explain that one?”

In failing to make an unequivocal condemnation of the three-phase strategy (as distinct from their presentation), Keir Starmer is still the face of responsible opposition. He remains unwilling to come out forcefully against the softer lockdown, so instead focusses on the lack of clarity that change inevitably brings. This is clever politics since clarity comes with mastery of detail, a discipline Boris Johnson lacks (for evidence, just rewind on the loquacious waffle with which the prime minister smothered his questioners during Monday night’s Downing Street briefing).

Starmer’s measured, cautious approach must annoy those like Jeremy Corbyn whose video-linked question to the prime minister in the house of commons on Monday afternoon was delivered in his usual tone of dismissive contempt at Tory wickedness. The coming weeks will determine whether Starmer’s line of attack endures the clarity that will come with the transition from announcement to activation. Whatever the results, it is hard to believe that the potency of the “Stay alert” slogan will continue to be the burning issue in three weeks’ time. Even if “Use your common sense” would have got to the nub rather better.

In raw political terms, the three-phase strategy has provided clarity not chaos: those who before the crisis were unwilling to give Boris Johnson the benefit of any doubt are returning to their starting position. The YouGov/Good Morning Britain poll suggests that younger people are less keen on relaxing the lockdown than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. This variance is surprising given that the younger age groups are least at risk. Possibly more relevant is that younger people are less inclined to trust the Tories.

The polling shows other signs that the divisions that shaped Britain between 2016 and 2019 have re-emerged. Whilst only 35 percent of Remain voters back the relaxation (almost as few as Labour voters), 54 percent of Leave voters think it is time to start slowly getting the show back on the road. Does this represent faith in the message or in the messenger? Is a greater tolerance for risk hard-wired into Leave voters than among those who wanted to remain umbilically attached to the European mothership?

Instincts for the primacy of liberty or for security may play their part in the renewed national divide, simplistic though either identification may be. But unless giving us liberty is shown to be giving us death, it is the hard lockdowners who will soon find themselves behind the curve. Behind, that is, not just the curve of events in England, but also those of Europe, where governments are also concluding that the time has come to step out and take a calculated risk.

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