David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Conservative MPs are restless. There is widespread disappointment with the Prime Minister, it is reported, with senior members of the 1922 Committee not just rebelling, but leading rebellions.
There are two sets of concerns about Boris Johnson. The first is that he is displaying insufficient grip, that he is a bumbling, incompetent figure unsuited to the role of Prime Minister at a time such as this.
The second is that his strategy on Covid-19 is wrong, and that he should be pursuing one that is based on living with the virus and allowing the economy to grow.
It would be fair to say that I am not a natural cheerleader for the Prime Minister but, on this occasion, I have limited sympathy for these MPs.
First, when it comes to competence, what exactly did they expect? I had plenty of discussions with my then colleagues about the attributes of the leadership candidates last summer. I do not recall anyone making the case that Boris Johnson would have a mastery of detail, or a command of the administrative challenges with which any Prime Minister has to deal.
They knew his limitations and were content to foist him upon the British people as their head of Government (a decision with which the British people were sufficiently content to give the Conservatives a big majority). I happen to think that Tory MPs and members should value competence in their leaders, but it is a bit late for that now. If competence was essential, there were always better options.
On the second complaint – that his Covid-19 strategy is too restrictive – there is a much stronger case to be made that this is not the Prime Minister for whom many voted. I touched on this in my last column on this site and it is true to say that he has not approached the Coronavirus with his characteristic carefree joie de vivre. But let us put ourselves in Johnson’s shoes.
He was widely criticised for locking down too late in March, with the consequence that, for a time, the UK was an outlier in terms of excess deaths. He is being advised that we are heading for a second wave of hospitalisations and deaths. The majority of scientists in this field, including his Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Officer and SAGE, are calling for tighter restrictions. The devolved administrations are also going in that direction, and England taking a radically different position would put a strain on the union.
Yes, deaths remain low but they are rising. Let us not forget that on 23 March there were 48 Covid-19 deaths. Eighteen days later, 940 people died from it in the UK on a single day. An exact repetition is unlikely – treatment has resulted in lower mortality rates and cases are now disproportionately amongst the young – but, in all likelihood, we are going to see a substantial rise in deaths in the next few weeks.
It is true to say that the existing restrictions – let alone the new ones that will be announced shortly – severely diminish many people’s quality of life. It is very far from being cost-free. And there are alternative strategies put forward by a small number of reputable scientists. Serious people are making the case for the ‘Swedish approach’ and, for what it is worth, although very sceptical about this being the right answer, I happen to think that the Swedes got it right on schools.
However, I really do have to question their political sense of those Conservative MPs calling for the adoption of the Swedish approach, The polling shows that further restrictions are popular – and that is before the death-rate starts to climb.
It might be callous to think about such matters in crude party political terms, but it is part of the job of a Party leader to calculate the implications of any policy. It is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister will have reached the conclusion that maintaining a relatively light-touch regime would leave him and the Conservative Party extremely vulnerable. The recent collapse in polling support for Donald Trump – especially amongst the elderly – should be a warning.
Just imagine the situation if, in a month’s time, deaths are running at several hundred a day after the Government had announced that, contrary to the advice of its scientists, it had decided to pursue a strategy of relaxing restrictions for England at the very point at which every other comparable country (and, indeed, every other nation in the UK) had tightened them.
It is hard to see how any Government, if it could survive, would come back from an approach that would be so spectacularly unpopular. Of course, the Prime Minister is not going to adopt such a strategy. And, on this point, I think that he will quickly see off his critics.
I can hear the counter-argument. “Lock down restrictions might be popular but they are economically disastrous. It is causing enormous damage to business which will soon feed through into people’s livelihoods. Conservatives should be prepared to take the tough decisions necessary to ensure we create wealth – even if unpopular. Without that wealth creation, everyone will suffer.”
By and large, I am usually sympathetic to arguments that put the economy first. Creating wealth is a pre-requisite to raising living standards (especially for the poor) and delivering high quality public services. And sometimes you have to take unpopular decisions – getting the public finances on a sound footing whilst maintaining a competitive business tax system, for example – in order to deliver that economic growth.
But there are a couple of problems with this argument. First, if the virus takes hold, it will not matter whether pubs have to close at 10pm, 11pm or 12pm. People will not want to go to the pub or restaurant, cinema, shop or office. Most of the economic damage caused by a virus is driven by people voluntarily changing their behaviour.
Second, if Conservative MPs are worried about the economy and business-damaging policies that will damage the UK’s capacity to create wealth, some of them might want to have a think about what they have been doing for the past four or more years in terms of our relationship with the European Union. They might also consider that, when it comes to the long term health of the UK economy, ensuring that the UK has a sensible deal in place before the end of the transitional period would be a better focus for their energies.