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Artillery Row

Why this Vote Leave government won’t rush out of lockdown

A poll a day keeps the let out away

What’s shaping Boris Johnson’s cautious approach to ending the lockdown? While the Prime Minister’s own brush with the virus will have undoubtedly focused his mind, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his wider strategy for the lockdown is influenced by one simple metric: public opinion.

And why not, you might say. No political policy has enjoyed anything like the level of support as the lockdown which — since March 24 — has scored near unanimous support from panicked voters. Poll after poll suggests that voters are more scared about lifting measures too quickly than too slowly, with many voters saying they’re happy to stay home and wait for a vaccine.

All of which presents somewhat of a trap for those of us fretting about the mounting economic and social pain of lockdown, or just yearning for a return to something resembling normality.  We’re stuck between a government unwilling to go against public opinion, and a populace with a seemingly infinite appetite for caution. Forget the science: our route of lockdown will likely depend on who budges first.

If you think I’m being over-dramatic, look at the reports this week from Politico on the extent to which the government’s drive to ensure their every move meets public approval. As some might have predicted, Downing Street now resembles a reanimated Vote Leave operation, constantly crunching the numbers to stay on the right side of what voters think. Every new slogan — such as the new Stay Alert tagline — is road-tested in election-style focus groups.

Such a data-driven approach might have helped swing the EU referendum, but is it really appropriate for governing? Surely you don’t have to be a lockdown sceptic — or a hardcore technocrat — to question the wisdom of outsourcing questions like these to the fickle weather-vane of public opinion? Particularly given we know that, when it comes to the virus, British voters are the most nervous in Europe.

But it isn’t just that a heavy-handed approach plays well with voters: unfortunately for lockdown sceptics, it also chimes perfectly with the Conservatives’ wider electoral strategy. And that’s obviously going to carry serious weight in Downing Street.

It won’t have escaped the Prime Minister’s attention, for example, that the current coronavirus hotspots — the North West and North East — are the same regions that helped deliver such a dramatic election victory last year. The Prime Minister likes to show he doesn’t take these voters for granted (he’s spoken repeatedly about how they ‘lent’ their support to the Tories). Is he likely to risk blowing that trust now, when polls suggest those same voters are resolutely behind shutting down the economy (albeit based on overblown fears about the virus)?

If anyone understands the power of the NHS as a vote-winner, it’s the Vote Leave team

There’s the biggest political calculation of all: the National Health Service. To call it the Conservatives’ biggest electoral weakness of modern history would be an understatement. Remember: even when Jeremy Corbyn plunged to previously-uncharted record levels of disapproval, polls still said voters considered Labour the most trusted party when it came to the NHS. The NHS was the one reason held up by some cabinet ministers against holding a winter election last year. They feared that a nasty bout of seasonal flu, and the images of over-crowded hospitals, might be enough to swing the election for Corbyn.

If anyone understands the power of the NHS as a vote-winner, it’s the Vote Leave team — architects of the infamous red bus — many of whom now rule the roost in Downing Street.  As self-identified political ‘disruptors’, they will no doubt see this as a chance to rebrand the Conservatives for decades to come: finally becoming the party of the NHS. The Prime Minister speaks of a once-in-a-generation crisis, but could it equally be a once-in-a-generation opportunity? At least, that is, from the perspective of a cynical political strategist, thinking from one election to the next.

Might the salience of the NHS have also played a role in Downing Street’s embrace of the much-criticised Imperial College model (which forecast 500,000 deaths from the virus in Britain alone) in the first place? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that party political weakness played a role in a government intelligence failure. Just look how New Labour — a relatively-inexperienced government keen to prove its mettle on questions of defence and security — ended up getting it so wrong on weapons of mass destruction. Could the Conservatives — desperate to compensate for their own Achilles heel — be making the same mistakes now?

None of which presents a particularly optimistic picture for lockdown hawks. Although there are signs that, at least amongst one particular constituency, opinion might be shifting in the right direction. Reports in Westminster are that a growing number of Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lockdown, with most taking a significantly tougher outlook than their cabinet counterparts.

Downing Street was left embarrassed this week when a photographed memo showed that aides had cautioned Boris Johnson against a one-on-one meeting with Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, for fears the influential backbencher might come brandishing the complaints of his frustrated peers. The lockdown has been equally unpopular with some Tory grandees, like Iain Duncan Smith, who still hold some clout within the parliamentary party.

For all his charm, Boris Johnson was never previously known as a keen schmoozer within Parliament, relying instead on a small number of close allies to build support amongst MPs for his leadership campaign. With parliament running at hugely reduced-capacity, Tory MPs have been unable to meet as normal, reducing the chances of any serious opposition amongst the ranks. Could that change in the coming weeks as MPs return to Westminster? And how will Downing Street factor that into its voter-pleasing calculations?

In many ways, the coronavirus had upended British politics well before the lockdown itself: notably in the announcement on 20 March, by a Conservative chancellor, of the most ambitious — and expensive — nationalisation scheme in history. The rules may well have changed for good. Those who fear the economic and social damage of the lockdown need to know that they’re operating in a vastly-changed world — and one in which the odds have moved against them.

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