Why does every new development in the coronavirus crisis seem to take Boris Johnson by surprise? Over the weekend, the prime minister sent not one, but two panicked letters to backbench Conservative MPs in the hope of dissuading them from voting this week against the government’s post-lockdown restrictions. Having been spooked by the level of discontent in the party ranks, Mr Johnson has conceded to a host of rebel demands, and intimated that rules may be relaxed in many areas from mid-December. The government’s Covid winter plan, unveiled last week, is due to take effect from Wednesday. It is already unravelling into a dangerously messy muddle.
A cost-benefit assessment of the new restrictions regime, demanded by the backbench Covid Research Group (CRG), confirmed what was already known: the damage to battered businesses and the hospitality sector in particular will be considerable. The north and the Midlands, where restive “red wall” MPs now constitute a crucial part of Mr Johnson’s parliamentary majority, will be especially badly hit. MPs in the south, representing areas with low Covid infection rates, are furious that their constituencies have been lumped together with neighbours suffering higher levels of transmission. In order to avoid relying on Labour MPs in Tuesday’s parliamentary vote, Mr Johnson is doing what he always does: ducking and diving to get through.
Belatedly, it seems that a greater degree of financial support will be forthcoming for pubs and restaurants. There are heavy hints that many cities and towns in the highest tier will be downgraded after a review in two weeks’ time, just before the bigger relaxation over Christmas begins. The controversial one-size-fits-all approach to counties and regions could be abandoned, despite a previous insistence that contagion between areas precluded this. The idea of cautiously counterbalancing the Christmas relaxation of rules with tough measures on either side appears to have been discarded.
The prime minister’s scramble to placate his party may well persuade enough Conservative MPs to vote with the government. But the price of Tory party unity will be the credibility of the government’s strategy. In his letter to the CRG, Mr Johnson pledged to “improve our communications” and be more transparent with government data. But it is hard to convincingly present a message that changes from day to day, tailored to whichever faction in the cabinet, or on the backbenches, has Mr Johnson’s ear.
In a lengthy article published on Saturday, Michael Gove warned that despite progress made during lockdown, Covid-related hospital bed occupancy remains dangerously close to its April peak. In the bluntest of terms, Mr Gove warned MPs against “comfortable evasions” of this reality. The following day, the prime minister was promising the same MPs a variety of potential escape routes from its implications. Confusion reigns. In the north, Mancunians are struggling to understand why London has apparently been spared tier 3 restrictions because of potential job losses, but the same logic did not apply to Manchester.
The Covid winter plan was drawn up on the basis of scientific advice that a less onerous tier system failed to control the second wave of infections. The consequent national lockdown has done its job in driving the R rate below one across the country. Ahead of arguably the most perilous period of the pandemic, the new restrictions should now not be subject to a hasty bargaining process with anti-lockdown libertarians and “red wall” MPs in the Conservative party. They should, from the start, have been accompanied by a level of economic support that gave financial security to the businesses and individuals they affect the most. Once again, Mr Johnson’s lack of strategic grip and mixed messages are leading to confusion and resentment, making a volatile situation far worse.