News can tell only one story at at time. The Government’s plan to slow the resumption of normal life in Britain (see Coronavirus) is one such tale. Its readiness to break international law if it considers this necessary (see the Brexit trade negotiation) is another.
But life isn’t news, and these two stories blend together in it, in a way that newpaper front pages or TV evening bulletins don’t really allow for. Together, they (plus a mass of other developments) add up to a formidable challenge for Boris Johnson.
On the virus, his main problem is the public. In one way, this doesn’t seem to be so: polls show support for restrictions on everyday activity. Nonetheless, these are not where they were last winter. Then, they found overwhelming support for the Government’s handling of Covid. Now, they don’t.
This decline was almost certainly inevitable – comparable to the frenzied enthusiasm that occasionally greets declarations of secession or war, and the bitter aftermath. So Ministers no have a fragile base to fall back on when the going gets tough. And the Prime Minister’s plans mark a change of gear.
The original lockdown was lightly policed, for all the awesome emergency powers now held by the authorities, because heavy intervention was unnecessary to make it work. Most people were more than willing to observe simple rules (“stay at home”) to deliver an emotive aim (“save the NHS”).
The new clampdown has more complex rules (“stay alert”), which follow successive changes that much of the public has lost track off. Its objective tugs less at the nation’s heart-strings (“control the virus”). And while people voice support for clampdowns in principle, imposing them will be difficult in practice.
This is because, to follow the war analogy, war-weariness has settled in. Younger people realise that they are unlikely to die of Covid. Older people chafe at separation from their families, and will be all the more restive as Christmas approaches. Those of working age risk losing their jobs as furlough is withdrawn.
So this time round, the Government will need more policing to deliver its policy – formally, through the police themselves, and informally, through marshalls. There will be curfews and fines. This will deepen the war-weariness. Johnson’s talk of vaccines is like wartime talk of victory: people will believe it when they see it.
Meanwhile, debate will continue. Are health gains from suppressing the virus worth health losses elsewhere – cancelled operations, cancer deaths, worse mental health, more domestic abuse? What about livelihoods as well as lives – and the workings of the economy that funds the NHS in the first place?
Dissent will grow on the Conservative benches, a slice of which will be unhappy about the flavour of wartime control that the new restrictions have about them. The UK Internal Market Bill will be introduced against this unsettled background.
Its proposal for a potential carve-out from international law will run into trouble in the Lords. (We leave aside senior civil service reaction: watch for resignations.) Our sense is that it may also do so in the Commons, and to understand why one must ponder the Tory benches.
Johnson is well-placed to see off an assault from his left – in other words, from the diminished group of former Remainers. But he is vulnerable to a pincer movement from his left and right at once; the left saying that the Withdrawal Agreement must be honoured; the right arguing that it must be abandoned.
His plan proposes neither, and is thus vulnerable to an incoherent but potentially powerful coalition. That has implications which run wider than the Bill. The European Research Group is no fan of Dominic Cummings, and some of its members reflexively treat much of what Downing Street does with suspicion.
The waves of this discontent will wash over other Government projects, such as its push for more housing. His backbenchers are used to Johnson as Churchill – a comparison that the Prime Minister’s biography of his precedecessor evoked. These curfews and marshalls suggest a new one: Johnson as Attlee.