The political atmosphere has fundamentally shifted
Waves of surprise and relief flash across the internet. Family WhatsApp groups light up. Long-laid plans are kept, tentatively, in the diary. The Government says it will not – yet — make normal life for Britons illegal for a second winter in a row. The Prime Minister’s post-cabinet message yesterday didn’t exactly sound reassuring, with “nothing ruled out” and “the possibility of taking further action”, but still, it’s a stay of execution for which millions of people will feel grimly thankful.
This non-decision decision may not have been exactly good news — and there may well be new restrictions in the coming weeks — but it was significant in that it marked a change in the political atmosphere. The unopposed glide towards lockdowns at times of rising Covid cases has finally been interrupted.
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It can be hard to unpick the Kremlinology of exactly where Covid decisions are made in Boris Johnson’s notoriously loose administration — there is a Covid group inside Number Ten, there is Sajid Javid’s team, and there are the advisory bureaucrats headed by Vallance and Whitty. This duo remain the most “bearish” but the SpAds closest to Boris used to be very cautious and pro-lockdown; since the vaccine programme and the successful opening up back in July, they are noticeably more sanguine.
The old “quartet” of Covid decision makers (Johnson, Sunak, Gove, Hancock) that was concocted to counterbalance the more liberal instincts of Johnson and Sunak with the two biggest lockdowners in the cabinet, is no more. Gove is now essentially out of Covid decision-making, and we all know what happened to Hancock. In this new world the more freedom-inclined instincts of Rishi Sunak hold more sway.
Enter Sajid Javid, who was relatively lockdown-sceptical during his time outside cabinet and relished being the anti-Hancock when he went ahead with opening up in July. Faced with his first scare in the form of Omicron he has had a major wobble: he has gone from being anti-restrictions on principle to being in the minority of cabinet voices in favour of some form of lockdown now. But even despite this U-turn he is conscious of the downsides of restrictions in a way his predecessor was not. His social media picture last night showing how he was consulting with new experts (including Francois Balloux) was a way of signalling how he is not simply swallowing the SAGE line without questioning.
The cabinet until now has been largely kept out of Covid decisions but because of the Prime Minister’s new political weakness seems to have been functional and assertive yesterday. It allows Gove back in the discussion, but gives a forum for the committed cabinet sceptics to be heard — by reports, only four cabinet ministers yesterday were persuaded by the case for immediate restrictions.
Each of these centres of Government may think they are the true decision-making body when it comes to Covid measures — that is the ambiguous atmosphere that Boris Johnson inevitably creates — but the mood in each of them is different to last winter.
Meanwhile, the scale of the backbench rebellion — with over 100 MPs rejecting Plan B last week — looms large in Government minds. Whatever you think of his politics, Steve Baker must be credited as one of the most effective backbench rebel leaders in recent Conservative history; his group is as influential now as it was at the height of the Brexit standoff. Crucially, the rebel 100 under-estimates the true extent of disquiet: consider Danny Kruger, who remains on the Government payroll as a PPS, and did not join the rebels over Plan B, but wrote a searing indictment of the direction of travel as his letter of “support”. He then co-authored an assertive op-ed about the future of the party with increasingly visible rebel Miriam Cates later the same week. The sense that lockdowns cannot continue as a mode of running the country goes far beyond the libertarian rebels and deep into the Tory Government.
At the same time the public opinion polls, which for most of the past two years have been stuck in Beijingesque unanimity in support of lockdowns and the Government, have moved quickly and dramatically. Polling this past weekend showed that just 19% of people would support a Christmas lockdown — a figure unthinkable at previous moments in this story. People have taken their vaccines, they are taking their boosters and as far as they’re concerned that’s that. With the Conservatives behind in the polls and fresh from the disaster of Shropshire North, the idea of new lockdowns is even less appetising.
So while it has not flipped completely, the political atmosphere has decisively shifted, and with it, the mood inside Government: scepticism about SAGE modelling, independent research into data about Omicron coming out of South Africa and Denmark and an awareness of the dangerous precedent that would be set by returning into lockdown for a second winter is common around the cabinet table just as it is on the backbenches.
The coming weeks will be testing. As the Omicron wave fans out across the country, all it will take is one sign of “the NHS being overwhelmed” to challenge this newfound assertiveness to breaking point. It could take the form of a TV crew’s report from inside a single hospital looking chaotic, with images of trolleys lining the corridors, which goes viral on social media; it could be a single hospital diverting A&E patients, or an NHS Trust formally declaring an emergency. Any one of these, even if they are short of a genuine national NHS crisis, would mean huge pressure from political opponents to snap back to lockdown.
But the politics are different now to previous moments in this pandemic; there’s a genuine debate inside Government and depending on what happens in the coming days there’s just about a chance — a flicker of hope — that restraint could yet win the day.