We haven’t had a government of national unity since the Second World War.
But according to Emmanuel Macron, we are at war — against the coronavirus. Battling the same enemy, governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures.
Our own government has promised to do “whatever it takes” — and that doesn’t only mean spending whatever it takes. The Emergency Coronavirus Bill (to be tabled today) will give the Government sweeping powers to restrict our movements and curb our civil liberties.
Over the years, there have been other emergencies — for instance, the Global Financial Crisis, the Winter of Discontent and the Three Day Week. But the scale of state intervention that we’re about to experience has no peacetime precedent. As the Prime Minister put it himself “we must act like any wartime government.”
Well, one thing the wartime prime ministers did in the First and Second World Wars was to invite the opposition to join the government. How long before Boris Johnson comes under pressure to do likewise?
It won’t happen immediately. There’s no public clamour to have Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell join the Cabinet. I doubt the offer would be made — or accepted. But when Sir Keir Starmer becomes Labour leader, the scenario becomes more plausible. Former ministers from the Blair and Brown years will probably return to the frontbenches — and could bring their years of experience back into office.
In the months ahead, ministers will roll forward the frontiers of the state, make life-and-death decisions and enforce what amounts to martial law.
Should so much power be placed in the hands of one party? The Conservatives did win an election just last year — but they weren’t given that mandate with the current crisis in mind.
What they do have a mandate for, of course, is getting Brexit done. It’s hard to imagine Starmer et al being part of that. Unless, of course, the transition period is extended — as may have to happen anyway.
As things stand, the Government has, if not the trust of the whole nation, then its consent to do what must be done. But as the crisis deepens, which it will, then our national unity will come under pressure.
It cannot be allowed to crack. If holding things together means bringing in the other parties, then so be it.
“Whatever it takes.”