Is Boris Johnson toast? His personal ratings have been declining steadily since last May and Labour now have their biggest lead over the Tories since 2013. But whether the Prime Minister survives is an open question: there may yet be a path back.
Partygate comes just as general support for restrictive Covid measures is dramatically running out. Already in early December, as the Omicron wave arrived and various scientists and experts began to call for the usual kinds of restrictions, the customary majority in favour of another lockdown was evaporating. A massive 68% of people opposed closing pubs and restaurants; 64% opposed stay at home orders.
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Since then, the trend has only accelerated. New YouGov polling, seen by UnHerd, reveals a dramatic shift in opinion since before Christmas: support for every one of ten different restrictions tested has fallen even further, and none of them now commands majority support (not even “encouraging companies to allow people to work from home”, the most popular at 49%). Fully 75% of people on December 16 felt that Covid was getting worse in the UK and only 9% felt it was getting better; by January 11 it had swung completely, as 37% felt it was getting worse and 38% felt it was getting better. Public anxiety is falling away as fast as the Omicron wave itself.
Meanwhile, the cohort of scientists who projected disaster without a Christmas lockdown has been humiliated, as their disaster spectacularly failed to materialise. It has left people with the lingering question: what about the previous restrictions? What about all those months we spent trying to navigate those byzantine regulations — how many of them were really necessary?
Into this atmosphere the stories about No 10 parties started to break. They couldn’t have been better designed to reinforce the suspicion that some of the past two years’ exertions might have been a waste of time. If they weren’t taking the rules seriously in Downing Street, was that because they knew they were partly theatrical and that some of them were pointless? The one-way systems in pubs, the daft signs outside on the street, the endless barked inanities on loudspeakers… were they taking us for fools? The public went along with it and gave the authorities their trust, despite coming face to face with absurd scenarios every day. It’s possible the current rage towards Boris is made more acute by a sense of embarrassment — maybe even shame — that everyone went along with it for so long.
So Boris Johnson has a choice. Either he accepts the role as sacrificial cow of the Covid era, soaking up all its insecurity and anger, and allowing himself to be ritually slaughtered so that we can all move on. Or he can acknowledge the role he has played over the past two years, and show us the way out of it.
England is now uniquely positioned to lead the world out of the Covid era — and this alone could save the Johnson premiership. The fact that his government managed to restrain from imposing freedom-curtailing restrictions over Christmas against the advice of Whitty and Vallance, Gove and Javid, an array of activist scientists and the Labour Party, was a decision of global consequence.
Across Europe, lockdowns returned in response to Omicron, and did little to prevent huge surges in cases. In the Netherlands, the lockdown was justified by the same bogus claims from Imperial College about Omicron that nearly scuppered England; meanwhile, the UK case rate is crashing to the bottom of the European league table. From Italy to California, the obsessive focus on vaccine passports — more pointless and divisive than ever in the face of Omicron — has intensified in the past months, while England has all but steered clear of them, save for occasional use at larger events. Many Western countries have managed to create a new underclass of the non-vaccinated from previously law-abiding citizens, who will now be alienated and radicalised for years to come. England has mainly avoided this; our society is strained, but it will hold.
Historians may yet conclude that this was the Johnson government’s biggest achievement. It stands accused of being both over-reluctant and over-keen to introduce lockdowns but in an international context, the UK has shown a laudable moderation. It managed to avoid the hotheadedness of the US and the divisive police-states of much of Europe; travellers returning home are hit by how normal things seem here in comparison. Given the initial disadvantage of being a global hub, our Covid fatality outcomes (27th in the world, 13th in Europe) could have been an awful lot worse.
This is the final card Boris Johnson has to play. Even his most vehement critics would agree that he possesses the dubious gift of giving the impression of being two different things at once: at the last election, he was one thing to a Red Wall Brexiteer, another to an affluent Southern Tory. In the Covid era he is similarly associated with opposing poles: to some he is the dithering libertarian, obsessed with freedom and herd immunity; to others he is the timorous face of endless lockdowns. As always with Johnson, there’s an element of truth to both.
The only way he can save himself politically also happens to be the most useful thing he can do for the country: stitch together these contradictions and help us move on. When the ‘Plan B’ restrictions expire next week, he should use the opportunity to call time on Covid’s dominance over our lives and announce that England is going back to normal life. Rescind the remaining ineffective mandates and order the signs and visible detritis of Covid to be removed. He cannot promise no new risks or variants but public attitudes are always a decisive factor in the start and end of an emergency, and leadership is an important part of that. Now is the moment: 97.5% of people in England have antibodies; 63% have been boostered; cases are coming down fast, hospitalisations and deaths will follow.
For Johnson, the political prize is more than just survival. As well as getting unhappy backbenchers back on side, it is a chance to be forever associated with this moment in history — as a winner not a loser. He should acknowledge the imperfections of his Covid response — inadequately decisive at certain points, overly fearful at others. He could even point to the Partygate stories to concede, with humility, how they demonstrate the impossibility of micromanaging every human being in society by diktat, alongside a vow never to return to that approach. Whatever your view of his moral worth, there are few politicians as opportunistic, as able to alchemise anger into joy, as Boris Johnson. The end of the pandemic is his last, best hope.
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