The Sunday papers are full of tales of Ministerial blunders (real and exaggerated) and Cabinet divisions. But the Government has good reason to keep cool, at least for the moment. Why?
For an answer, look at the polls. Last Thursday, Ipsos-MORI released news of a “Boris Bounce” – with 51 per cent of respondents having a favourable view of the Prime Minister, up 17 per cent since early March. The number of those who take a similar view of the Conservatives has risen by seven points.
In short, the Government has a mass of capital stored in the bank. But it doesn’t follow that this hoard will last, whatever Ministers do, or that it won’t be called on during the next few weeks – and suddenly at that.
Our own James Frayne has described the polls as “a rapidly-ticking time bomb”, suggesting that employers already consider themselves “heading for catastrophe” and that others will catch up “before too long”. When might that be?
Early June will mark three months since the start of the economic contraction. Most of the Treasury schemes were expressly announced to last for that period, though Rishi Sunak has said that they’ll be continued if necessary.
One might reasonably expect people’s patience with the full lockdown to start running lower after this quarter, as business closures and redundancies replace home working and furloughs in the public consciosuness.
That gives Boris Johnson and company a window of about three weeks in which to make up his mind about whether to persevere with the lockdown or ease it, and then start to implement the latter if that’s the decision.
In that way, he would keep ahead of public opinion – moving off a full lockdown in early-to-mid May before voters begin to defy it in growing numbers.
The thrust of today’s reporting says nothing that makes this timing more unlikely. A crude summary is as follows: a quad of Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock are streamlining a lockdown wind down plan.
Sunak and Gove are apparently for an earlier lifting; Hancock for a later one, and Raab, though staying neutral as the chairman of the quad, leans towards moving off the shutdown sooner rather than later.
Gove is in charge of drawing the streams of proposals coming from departments into a coherent whole. That’s no surprise given the role of the Cabinet Office.
For it is a joint Number Ten/Cabinet Office team, under Tom Shinner, that has been sifting the plans. Shinner is a former Director of Policy and Strategy at Dexu, and before that Director of Strategy at Education under Gove.
Dominic Cummings lured him back to Downing Street from the private sector last month. The aim is for Gove/Shinner to present the Prime Minister with a full scheme.
And it’s clear that the general pattern of the proposals is for schools to open first and large sporting and cultural events to do so last, with shops in between.
The papers make much of the trade-off, in any decision, between lives lost now, if the lockdown is lifted and a “second wave” lifts off, and livelihoods and other lives lost later, if the shutdown continues.
But this was always the stuff of which any decision was made. The key factor is a familiar one: whether the NHS can cope or not – the only one of the Government’s five tests that really counts.
The stage is set for Johnson to dip a toe cautiously in the water after the May Bank Holiday, and announce the re-opening of schools, perhaps on a staggered basis, and some shops.
We say this, first, because the sources of official advice given to him have now reportedly been widened to include Treasury officials; second, because Parliament, which returns next week, will begin to build pressure for a graduated end to the shutdown and, third, because of his own lockdown-sceptic instincts.
If he takes this path, the Prime Minister will hope that the rising number of hospital admissions will not swamp the NHS’s capacity to cope with them. Hence the gradualness of any easing-off.
Readers don’t need us to tell them that inherent to any such move will be the risk of trial and error. It will be rather like, to use an image sometimes applied to monetary policy, shaking a stubborn bottle of HP sauce – and hoping that the liquid won’t suddenly splatter out all at once.
The Coronavirus picture is continuously changing. And as we keep saying, reading it is an art, not a science – given the problems inherent in predicting how the public will behave, understanding the virus itself and immunity from it, getting comparable figures from abroad, and so on.
But we believe that Johnson would be right to relax, say, the lockdown provisions on primary schools and retail. He will want to stress that some aspects of the lockdown, such as social distancing for the elderly and vulnerable, will be in place for the foreseeable future. Britain won’t return to the status quo ante any time soon.
All this assumes that the Prime Minister will be fit and healthy enough to step up to the plate in early May. We hope that he will be. Nonetheless, it isn’t so long ago since his release from hospital – with all concerned reminding themselves and others that recuperation takes time.
Which is why if necessary he must give Raab his full apostolic blessing to stand in for him after that first May Bank Holiday if needs be.