Even taking account of their other woes, the pandemic did not create a clement political environment for the Opposition. There was little opportunity to differentiate on restrictions when everyone backed them, and it was difficult to attack the same old Tories when Rishi Sunak was hosing money at doing “whatever it takes”.
Fortunately for the country, if not necessarily for the Government, there are signs that things are returning to normal. ‘Partygate’ has dispelled the Conservatives’ grip on the poll lead. The tension between ‘levelling up’ and sound finance is opening cracks in the Cabinet.
Labour still faces a tricky challenge on what to do about Covid-19 restrictions, however. On the one hand, they don’t want to seem out of step with public opinion. On the other, in the event that ministers are forced to change course they want to be able to lay the we-told-you-so’s on thick.
This tension has resulted in a rather confused approach. Just last week, the press quoted backbenchers concerned that the party’s lack of a clear line on restrictions was causing confusion; frontbenchers called for tougher action, then others publicly welcomed the fact that no such action was taken.
Wes Streeting, the Shadow Health Secretary – he who “breathed a sigh of relief” then Christmas went uncancelled – seems keen to push Labour away from a pro-lockdown position. In a recent interview (clip below) he outlined the challenge of 2022 as “learning to live well with the virus”.
What does this entail? Alongside vaccination uptake and advances in treatment: “key public health mitigations that don’t impact on our lives, our livelihoods, and our liberties”, such as ventilation and testing capacity. The goal: “we can go about our lives as normal in 2022”.
If Labour really is shifting towards a ‘live with the virus’ posture, that makes Boris Johnson’s (now delayed) musings on whether or not to introduce fresh curbs this month rather academic. The Prime Minister has come to rely on Opposition votes to implement restrictions in the face of a growing rebellion by Tory backbenchers; a change of heart by Labour, and the signal it would send to prospective mutineers on the Conservative side, would tip the balance of the Commons decisively.
That’s still an ‘if’ though. It isn’t clear that Streeting’s position is actually Labour’s collective position, if such a thing exists. It also seems likely that the prospect of an actual NHS crisis, of the sort which would push Johnson to table restrictions, would likely push Labour to back them, for the same political reasons.
But for those determined to see the back of full-fat lockdowns and national restrictions, which includes the overwhelming majority of our panellists, the direction of travel is surely heartening.
“Coronavirus isn’t going to go away”
— Times Radio (@TimesRadio) January 2, 2022