Yesterday, ConservativeHome described Boris Johnson’s speech to the Munich Security Conference as “upbeat” – and so it was. “An industry of pessimism has thrived recently” at this regular event, he told his audience. “Let me respectfully suggest that the gloom has been overdone and we are turning a corner.”
That’s the Prime Minister all over. His mother, Charlotte Wahl, who suffers from Parkinsons, spoke during a rare interview last year about the depression and obsessive compulsive disorder that can go with it, and did in her case. The effect that his childhood story has had on Johnson is well-chronicled, and explains one of the reasons for his compulsive projection of that zip and buoyancy.
It will consequently have been hard for him when the pandemic broke last year, if not quite to laugh it off, then at least not to wave it away – like a cumulus that must shift if sunlight is to break through. In early March, he reported that, while visiting a hospital, he “shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”
“We can turn the tide in twelve weeks,” he said last March. In July, he hoped for “a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas”. As recently as last month, he threw Downing Street into confusion by suggesting that “we’ll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” before today.
“A spokesman later admitted that the Prime Minister’s words could have been interpreted in two ways – that the Government might do something before February 15 or consider what to do before February 15,” it was reported.
It is important to put these quotes in context: they were either caveated at the time, or took place when we knew less about the virus than we do now. For example, Downing Street claims that Johnson hadn’t seen official advice about not shaking hands when he stressed that he had done so last March.
And for all the Prime Minister’s bounce, having Covid himself last April, and very seriously too, knocked the stuffing out of him for a while, and will have had a lasting impact on him. ConservativeHome’s experience of him previously was that he was never ill, and was also, while not unsympathetic if someone else was, faintly puzzled, like a man confronted by a language new to him.
So we can’t help wondering this morning if Johnson has learned not only from his own and Britain’s collective Covid experience, but also from Britain’s success on vaccine distribution, in which the February 15 target for priority groups was hit a day ahead of schedule. Why not under-promise in order to over-deliver?
The Prime Minister will not have forgotten, even if some of the rest of us have, that local elections take place on May 6 – a bumper crop this year, because last year’s cancelled polls will be wrapped into them. Mayoralties in London, the West Midlands, Teesside, the West of England, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough; county councils; a mass of thirds in districts and unitaries.
What a bracing springboard it would be to bounce into them with key restrictions lifted before the dates he will suggest this afternoon…and before polling day.
This morning, details of how fast this lockdown will end are unclear: it could scarcely be otherwise when a 50-page plan will not be released until later today, after Johnson addresses the Commons, and much will reportedly depend on a checklist of vaccination success rates, the non-emergence of problematic new variants and how quickly the hospitals clear.
Nonetheless, the plan announced today would see shutdown lifted less slowly than, say, the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs would like. It wants restaurants open by Easter, which takes place this year on April 4, and all legal restrictions ended by the end of that month.
The Government’s timetable suggests that hospitality won’t be back to normal until July, with only those premises offering food outside open by May – and that those legal curbs will last for a long time yet. For example, the rule of six looks set to return in late March: on that projection, we will effectively be in lockdown until then, though schools look ready to re-open on March 8.
How convenient it would be for the Prime Minister, and our fellow Conservative campaigners, to see him triumphantly announce at some point soonish, perhaps just before Easter, that the vaccine rollout continues to go smoothly, that the Astra-Zeneca success rate looks good, that the number of hospitalised people is falling fast, and that some modest opening-up can take place earlier than expected.