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Artillery Row

Politics in a time of Coronavirus

How partisan should party politics now be?

Point-scoring. Political knockabout. Partisan jibes. Normal party politics. There is widespread antipathy to the traditional antics of Westminster at the best of times. And those times have passed. Is this really the moment to distract those charged with the responsibility of seeing us through the coronavirus crisis with witless jeers and barbs?

But holding the government to account, asking its ministers and advisers the probing questions that force them to explain their intent and to posit alternative scenarios and experiences to better test that thinking is precisely the role of Opposition politicians (alongside journalists). This is certainly a good time to offer constructive criticism.

But problematically, your probing question is my point-scoring. And what if we find ourselves in a predicament where a constructive tone is no longer equal to the severity of the situation?

what if we find ourselves in a predicament where a constructive tone is no longer equal to the severity of the situation?

The Second World War remains the popular reference point for most Britons, rather than the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic which is a generation or two out of reach. The tipping point at Westminster came in May 1940 when the Opposition parties coalesced with Tory rebels like Leo Amery who channelled his inner-Cromwell by shouting at the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, “in the name of God, go!” Constructive criticism this was not. But the situation demanded it – and as a result we got the highly preferable war leader, Winston Churchill.

This is not the Second World War, Boris Johnson is not Neville Chamberlain and if there is a preferable unifying leader then you may have to wait a while. But articulating opposition in the tone appropriate to the situation matters, no less.

This government has already made mistakes. Some of them are on a recoverable scale – like last weekend’s selective briefing to favoured media which led to contradictory expectations of policy being published, in some instances behind a paywall. The flow of open, on-the-record information should be improved now that daily afternoon news conferences have been introduced featuring the prime minister besides the medical experts.

But more regular televised briefings is no panacea. If, for instance, you ask the chancellor of the exchequer about the long-term economic impact or how fiscal forecasting will change, then be ready to expect a vague answer no matter how many days of the week you get to ask Rishi Sunak the question. In situations like we are now in, only a charlatan deals in certainty.

More serious has been the lateness with which the government has seemingly recognised the need to diversify ventilator production. So much about the speed and spread of the virus has confounded expectations that a certain leaden-footedness is inevitable and excusable. But identifying other companies capable of making ventilators earlier might reasonably have been foreseen. Having been negligently tardy, the Government was nevertheless right to make a public appeal for help even although doing so revealed its lack of sufficient planning. If opposition politicians or journalists create such a haranguing environment that ministers are frightened to make public statements of omission of this kind, then no public good is served.

This is not about being soft on the Tories. The same measured appropriateness of tone needs to modulate how questions are put to Nicola Sturgeon and the other leaders of the devolved governments throughout these Isles and to those implementing policy at a local level too.

Many Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians understand this. But the tone encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn can be summed-up by his statement on Monday that “the government just seems to be complacent.” He delivered this sweeping verdict in that vocal inflection of scarcely suppressed contempt that he reserves for Conservatives.

Whatever one thinks of Boris Johnson, the briefest understanding of his schedule demonstrates that he is taking coronavirus extremely seriously, chairing COBRA, leading daily press conferences with the most senior medical advisers in the country, articulating the government response.

Today, the chancellor of the exchequer unveiled a vast additional pumping of liquidity into the economy including loans equivalent to 15 percent of the country’s GDP, £25,000 cash grants to uninsured small businesses in the most vulnerable retail, leisure and hospitality sectors and three month mortgage holidays for those in difficulty. Yesterday, the prime minister recommended avoidance of public places, including restaurants and mass gatherings and social distancing. Today, the foreign secretary advised an end to all non-essential foreign travel.

But, starting with February’s floods and then trying to connect it with the arrival of coronavirus, Corbyn has repeatedly tested the slogan that Boris Johnson is a “part-time prime minister.” The implication is that he is too lazy or untroubled by the plight of others to give a crisis his full attention. Hence, Monday’s “complacent” allegation.

Corbyn has repeatedly tested the slogan that Boris Johnson is a “part-time prime minister.”

Whether or not they have the right strategy, can it really be that Johnson and his Cabinet are “complacent” about coronavirus and its effects? At last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, only one of Corbyn’s six questions to Johnson was about coronavirus (a question about sick pay, not measures to combat the virus). The leader of the opposition spent the other five questions on gender questions, topped off with an allegation that the prime minister was a Islamophobic misogynist for once referring to “letterboxes” – a (selective) quote to which Corbyn and his followers keep returning.

As recently as last Friday, the coronavirus crisis was apparently not so serious to Jeremy Corbyn that he felt he needed to cancel delivering the keynote Bernie Grant 20th anniversary lecture “about the importance of activism in the fight against racism” to a full house at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham. Complacent, moi?

The current leader of the opposition would not be the first to fail to hide his personal loathing for his counter-part. There was not much love lost between Gladstone and Disraeli or Cameron and Brown. But at a time when the country needs focussed scrutiny of the government’s actions, this is in short supply when Labour’s leader is so deeply imbued with the Nye Bevan viewpoint that Tories “are lower than vermin.”

Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the opposition is now entering its final fortnight. Beyond the Labour Party’s membership, many citizens throughout the country will look to Corbyn’s successor in hope, and for hope. If that leader is to be Sir Keir Starmer then there is certainly expectation that he will duel this government with the accuracy of a rapier, rather than the indiscrimination of the bazooka.

Today, Sir Keir Starmer responded dismissively to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s vast injection of £330 billion of financial guarantees. The Government, Starmer said, “has finally recognised this is an economic crisis.” Finally? Dir Sir Keir listen to last week’s Budget speech or the interest rate announcements from the Bank of England? Sir Keir proceeded to demand more coverage for additional groups, claiming “the Government always seems several steps behind events.” To which we might ask that if this is so, which of today’s specific relief measures did Sir Keir demand previously?

A “cause and effects” debate is emerging on the government’s financial response to coronavirus. The Treasury is pumping-in billions of pounds to try to keep endangered companies afloat. The Opposition is focused on improving benefits for those who will be laid-off or sent home. The advantage of the former is that it reduces the scale of those in need of the latter. But the Labour Party is right to keep the plight of the most vulnerable visible and urgent. It should continue to do so.

Labour’s efforts to win additional support for these victims will be boosted by appearing credible and public spirited. Which is why the language used to attack the Government needs to have the venom drained out of it.  It is not too late to rise to the challenge. There may come a time to imitate Leo Amery and say “in the name of God, go!” But that time is not now.

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