by Henry Hill
Monday, 19
July 2021

Politicians do deserve special privileges

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak should not have capitulated over self-isolation
by Henry Hill
Would you quarantine with these men? (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak should not have to self-isolate if there is a practical means available for them to responsibly avoid doing so.

In most countries, one suspects this wouldn’t really need saying. They are the most senior members of the Government. They are overseeing the national response to the pandemic. They should therefore be on any pilot scheme that allows for a more efficient replacement for self-isolation.

Moreover, both men have been double-jabbed, and the Government has just signed off a wholesale unlocking of English society predicated upon the vaccine rollout. If fully-vaccinated people nonetheless need to self-isolate in response to a possible exposure to Covid-19, the nation faces a choice between uninstalling the app or grinding to a total halt.

Instead, yesterday witnessed one of the most shameless u-turns seen under Boris Johnson’s leadership. It takes considerable gall to release a video claiming one “briefly considered” using the pilot scheme when the press has an official statement, dated a couple of hours before, confirming you definitely were.

His immediate capitulation to the backlash will have consequences, not least for ministers such as Michael Gove who have already used the pilot scheme. By backing out, both Johnson and Sunak have tacitly conceded that there is something dodgy about it.

It might be that constantly yo-yoing in and out of isolation will encourage the Government to accelerate an alternative to track and trace. Or lead to ministers following the nation’s lead and quietly uninstalling the app. If not, the next few months will make a farcical spectacle of the Cabinet.

Yet as much blame as can fairly be laid at the Prime Minister’s door, this story taps into a deeper and not especially attractive trait in British politics.

It is telling that so many of the Government’s opponents, usually quick to decry ‘populism’, scrambled to attack the very sensible idea that senior ministers should be included in a pilot scheme which cannot, by definition, be rolled out to everyone at once.

It’s the same spirit which refuses to spare a couple of vaccines to safeguard the literal heir to the throne and his wife before it’s ‘their turn’. Which sees MPs hand their pay over to an independent regulator only for some to performatively refuse the pay rises it recommends. Which ensures that our Prime Minister is paid much, much less than the leaders of comparable western, democratic nations.

Ironically, it is often the root of the very scandals — the expenses scandal, the ongoing saga of the Downing Street flat refurbishment — which has so undermined public trust in politicians.

This may be, in some way, the system falling victim to its own success. Our constitutional monarchy broadly separates non-partisan national ritual and ceremony from the political side of things. Our elected leaders do not emulate kings or emperors because they never replaced them.

But this attitude can be taken too far. To have the Prime Minister grubbing around to buy wallpaper or feed his guests undermines the dignity of the state, and a miserly attitude towards MPs’ remuneration goes some way to explaining why so many good people are not tempted by what is often a miserable job.

Perhaps one day we’ll have a leader with the courage, and self-evident moral rectitude, to make this case to the public. Until then, we’re stuck with this spiteful circus, and all its consequences.

Join the discussion

  • Our lords and masters regularly demonstrate that current restrictions are excessive, as they themselves can’t live by them. If we don’t open up now, both domestically and internationally, when all adults have been offered vaccination, then when would we? Johnson’s mistake was not that he gave in to the pressure, but that he failed to offer the “trial” to everyone.

  • For the last few years there has been much talk and controversy about ‘British values’. But if there is any British value that’s genuine, and not imposed as wishful thinking or political manipulation, then it’s a deep sense of fairness or ‘fair play’. It’s why the British believe in orderly queues and the unfairness of queue jumping. The spectacle of government members and royalty being exempted from rules that govern the rest of us would be perceived as fundamentally un-British.
    The sentiment runs so deep that when Buckingham Palace was bombed during WW2, the Queen Mother said, ‘now I can look the East End in the face’.
    One of the reasons the first lockdown was so successful (in its own terms) was because it was perceived that we were all in it together. It’s a British form of egalitarianism which, unlike Animal Farm ‘people’s democracies’, doesn’t result in ‘one rule for them, another for us’. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand this country.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up