Politics became tundra during Brexit. The coming-together of the biggest electoral event in our history and a Government with no majority in Parliament saw to that. Debate on leaving the EU consumed the chamber. There was little other legislation of any note.
Ministerial work continued but activity dropped. There was little point in pushing for, say, social care reform in the circumstances. Budgets were necessarily more modest than they would otherwise have been. The media, both old and new, adjusted accordingly.
Boris Johnson’s near-landslide election triumph ended all that, and returned the first single-party government with a strong majority in 15 years. For the best part of three months, we have enjoyed something nearer post-war normality – albeit with an Opposition weaker than any since the Conservative one of the late 1990s.
Whatever the prevalance and fatality of the coronavirus may turn to be, it’s evident that all this has come to a halt, and that politics in Britain is heading again into the deep freeze.
Perhaps it would be better to say that it is about to self-isolate – borrowing a figure of speech from the response to the illness itself. We don’t just refer by this to the possible closure of Parliament to visitors, or even to MPs and peers being barred from the Palace of Westminster for a period.
Rather, we’re thinking of the wider effects. Once again, the media will necessarily focus on a single story. Downing Street will minimise the number of announcements made by Ministers. Measures that they want to get a big publicity bang will be delayed.
The difference between this year and last is that the Government has a big enough majority to push through almost any measure it likes. The coronavirus will give it the opportunity to slip controversial Bills through the Commons with less public protest than usual. It will overshadow Keir Starmer’s likely election as Labour leader.
That ought to reduce any early bounce that Labour gets in the polls, all other things being equal – and thus hold back that party’s performance in the local elections, assuming that these take place at all.
It should also halt any revolt at the top of the civil service in the wake of Philip Rutnam’s resignation. The warmer spring weather ought to see the virus off this summer, but it will back again next winter. Those of us who survive the coming outbreak, that’s to say the vast majority, will literally have to live with it.