“Healing and fixing Britain” must become the Conservatives’ mission for the next two years at least.
“Healing”, by showing that the Party understands the trauma that people went through during the crisis, and how and why some things went wrong (and others right).
“Fixing”, by showing it knows which decisions to take to reform the state and public services, so the country is better prepared for next time.
There’s a growing risk that the Government ends up getting the fixing part right, but ultimately faces a public backlash on a lack of healing.
The Government is trailing the prospect of an emergency Budget (although this will probably be delayed for a while) and is considering aggressive action to get the economy moving. This is welcome in practical terms as well as political terms. The country has to get moving again, or we’ll be looking at the most appalling depression we’ve ever seen.
But getting the economy moving and staving off the worst of the recession won’t even take the Party to the start line of what you might call its own political recovery. It needs a much more fundamental “reboot”.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on this site about the coming “Fairness Audit” that will take place when the worst of the virus had passed. I suggested people will be looking hard at which groups suffered disproportionately and why, and which groups appeared to sail through the crisis with minimal difficulty. You can already see this Audit beginning to take shape.
Pretty soon, amid rising unemployment and growing business failures, we’ll collectively hear the most appalling stories about life in Britain in the lockdown: stories of domestic violence and abuse; vulnerable children abandoned with no oversight from schools or social services; rising general healthcare problems; estates lost to drug dealers; rising drug and alcohol abuse; and so on.
So far, the media haven’t begun to scratch the surface of all this. And, of course, we’ll hear stories about the harsh reality of life in hospitals and care homes. We will ask: how could these things have happened?
In this climate, getting the economy moving won’t even begin to give the Government any political momentum. It will need to conduct the equivalent of its own Fairness Audit. It will need to show it fully understands, feels and cares deeply for what the public went through and who suffered most – and that it is actively seeking the ugly truth.
During the post-mortem which will take place, emotions will run high; people will want to know what happened. Where it occurred, it will need to be honest about state failure. This process can’t be ducked; people will find out the truth for themselves, in time. Only by doing this properly will the Government be trusted to take decisions to fix the state and improve the country.
The public are fair-minded. They don’t believe that the Coronavirus could have been predicted, and they know this (hopefully) once in a lifetime event was going to test the Government in ways that would be beyond anyone’s capacity to fully respond.
But they will be deeply concerned about those failings of the state that the crisis has revealed – and they will want them dealt with urgently. A Government-run audit which includes how the state performed is a prerequisite for putting things right. Within reason, the public will not punish the Government for being honest about failings within the NHS or the civil service, nor about failings in the relationships with government bodies more broadly.
The media became obsessed with the Dominic Cummings Affair. While it’s true to say it “cut through” to the public, in the sense that many people heard about it, it was ultimately an irrelevance (as upsetting this truth is for some).
For the public, it wasn’t on the same planet as, say, the difficulties of accessing PPE for the NHS quickly, or getting the testing programme sorted, or the challenges of getting schools open. The Government obviously came to this conclusion quite early on; they called this right. It has therefore shown that it knows what the public doesn’t care about. They now need to show they understand what the public does care about.