In the wake of a near-lockdown of the entire country, we await a new batch of opinion polls with special interest. Recent ones have been good for the Government. On the Coronavirus, more believe that the Conservatives have handled it well than badly – more than half of those who expressed a view, in some cases. On voting intention, more plumped for the Conservatives than for their rivals – again, over half, in some surveys.
This complements a picture, presented by Henry Hill on this site yesterday, of less panic buying than some reports would suggest. The evidence available suggests a stoicism-to-panic ratio slanting strongly to the former.
Nonetheless, one can be both resolute but anxious, and public concern has doubtless been rising at a similiar rate to those virus graphs – at least if phone-ins, social media content and thread comments are anything to go by. And that was before the announcement yesterday evening of measures unprecedented even in wartime; at once both draconian and strangely vague. The Government’s critics fall into two broad camps.
First, there are what are best called the activists. Some want a mass testing and follow-up programme like South Korea’s. Others want a total shutdown of the country, complete with curfews, for as long as it takes (for however long that might be). They hate any approach that has achieving herd immunity built into it, whatever the semantics may be of this being a Government aim or not.
Second, there are the passivists. At one end, some want the most vulnerable shielded, and the rest to go about their daily business as usual. At the other, some take a fatalistic view of events, and think that it isn’t worth sacrificing the future of the young and healthy for the elderly and sick. A few even appear to see the virus as a just punishment as what they see as the snowflakery, decadence and socialism of modern Britain.
“Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth,” the author of the Book of Revelation wrote to the Church in Laodicea. Such has been the message of some in both groups to Boris Johnson, as they have watched what has looked like a policy shift from containment to suppression – and now a near-shutdown the length and breadth of Britain. Is it fair?
It is worth remembering at the start, while pondering the question, that the Prime Minister is not Winston Churchill – at least when it comes to poll ratings. There was thumping support for the latter in wartime surveys, including an 82 per cent finding in March 1942, one of the worst months of the Second World War. Whatever one makes of the methodological accuracy of those polls, Johnson begins with nothing like the same level of support.
Though he was a near-landslide winner in December, roughly a third of those who voted backed an openly Marxist party. A slice of those voters, together with some Liberal Democrats and others, hate his double victory first last year, and back in 2016 in the EU referendum. An influential section of them are based in London, the country’s dominant city, and are strikingly well-networked, in the media, politics, law and academia.
They are obsessed by his personal frailties and fixated upon the role of Dominic Cummings. Before the take-off of Coronavirus, they warned that Johnson was seeking to govern as a dictator. Once the virus got going, they were clamouring for him to exercise the very powers against which they had warned, and damning his liberal instincts – which were apparent to most of us long ago, but which they have only now deigned to notice.
None of this is to say for a moment that the Government’s response has been perfect – far from it. There are two legitimate lines of criticism. The first is presentational. There has been conflicting information, such as on whether travellers returning from Italy should isolate or not, and confusing about-turns, sometimes a result of briefings to selected journalists: over a London lockdown last week; plans for over-70s; herd immunity, and much else.
The second is practical. The point about herd immunity leads straight to it. Are the accelerating restrictions part of a seamlessly-timed Government plan to minimise pressure on the NHS? Or have Ministers been stampeded, rightly or wrongly, into a change of strategy, in the wake of that famous Imperial College paper? One aspect of the answer is evident: it is clear that SAGE, the presiding expert committee, has been divided.
Any reflective person should feel for Johnson and his team. For as John Redwood wrote on this site recently: “knowledge is still imperfect about how long it can be in someone before symptoms show, how it is transmitted, why it is sometimes very dangerous but normally not for a younger healthy person, whether it can be caught twice by the same person, and whether someone does build immunity to it by having it”.
The Prime Minister is like man firing at a moving target blindfold with a gun that may not work. We believe he is presenting well, and not panicking, amidst daunting circumstances. Where the Government looks culpable is not in having failed to prepare, for example, last year (politicians and the public would have opposed a switch in resources from then to later) but, say, last month. Why wasn’t the push for more ventilators and equipment made then?
Johnson was returned with a near-landslide less than four months ago. But the political landscape is unrecognisable: no more “Red Wall” chatter, no more Today programme boycott, no more talk of levelling-up – in the face of that ultimate leveller-down: death. Perhaps the Goverment’s broad plan has been right. Hong Kong and Taiwan are experiencing that “second wave” which some of its most prominent advisers fear.
But it will be a very long time, given the evasiveness of reliable statistics, until the truth is clear one way or the other. In the meantime, as we have written before, even success – which is to say deaths in low five figures rather than even low six figures – won’t feel like success. A & E departments are set on present trends to follow much the same trajectory as Italy’s.
Some Ministers are surprised by the skittishness of Conservative MPs; by how so many are beating frantically on Downing Street’s door demanding more action, resources, money. They shouldn’t be. This is a generation of Parliamentarians raised and trained as constituency campaigners. Modern politics is a volatile business: Tory MPs who won marginals today know all too well that they are vulnerable tomorrow.
The combination of this new shutdown, already shot through with ambiguities (how are the police meant to monitor “one form of exercise a day”?); the imminent arrival of a new Labour leader, whose skill set is strong on lawyerly inquisition; the jitteriness of Conservative MPs and the prospect of the NHS being unable to cope are baleful for Johnson.
In the ideal world that doesn’t exist, low politics would not intrude on high drama, with life and death at stake for many thousands and perhaps more.
But in the real one that we live in, the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, and two of the four chairmen of the policy implementation committees, were leadership election rivals last year. There is a gaggle of former Cabinet Ministers who have lost their jobs. There are wartime precedents for national governments and deposed Prime Ministers. A cloud of unknowables haunts the man whose star blazed so brightly last December.