Boris Johnson’s curtailed mini-holiday to Scotland could soon start to feel a distant memory, with MPs returning to parliament on Tuesday, and the prime minister facing an overflowing political in-tray. Here are some of the more immediate crises he must face in the coming months:
Schools and universities
Most pupils in England and Wales return this week, many after nearly six months away from schools, with university and FE students following soon after. As well as managing the anger caused by this summer’s exams debacle, Johnson will be intensely aware of the role educational settings could play in pushing forward a new wave of coronavirus into the autumn and winter – and the overwhelming political imperative to keep them open nonetheless.
The government has been warned that for schools to remain open, new restrictions might be needed in other sections of the economy. But what? Wholesale closures of pubs and restaurants could finish off much of the hospitality sector, while local lockdowns have created anger, and can give the impression of a government playing an endless, “whack-a-mole” game that it cannot win.
A winter NHS crisis
It is easy to forget that even ordinary winters, with their run of flu and other seasonal illnesses, traditionally put huge pressure on the health service. Even if a fresh upsurge in Covid cases is less than feared, the impact could be severe. A big factor in winter hospital bed shortages is delays in moving vulnerable patients to care settings. With care homes still reeling from coronavirus, this could be even more significant this year.
Such is the political bandwidth taken up by Covid that the crisis that dominated UK politics for three years is now relegated to lower down on lists such as these. But the perils are still the same. In a matter of weeks, it would seem, Johnson must decide whether he gives up on talks with the EU, or prepares for the sort of carefully choreographed policy pirouette he undertook to seal the initial exit deal last year. The first will add to the economic and social impacts of an effective no-deal departure onto Covid; the latter would leave Brexit-minded Conservative MPs aghast and furious.
The public finances
The idea of increases to corporation and inheritance tax, among others, brought a predictably angry response from some Tory MPs after it was floated in Sunday papers. It could just be Treasury kite-flying. But one thing is clear: given Johnson has promised no return to austerity, there are some big holes developing in the public finances. His decision is not whether they must be addressed, just how and when.
For all that Gavin Williamson has been written off as a zombie education secretary, awaiting the inevitable demise, the last near-nine months have shown that Johnson’s government has a habit of defying norms on accountability, as shown by the continued presence of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick. The PM faces a wider conundrum. Sweeping reshuffles can be used a demonstration of Downing Street power. But for a still-new PM with a strong majority and no need to assuage competing power bases, doing one so soon could be seen as a sign that – as some Tory MPs believe – too much of the current cabinet isn’t up to the job.
Johnson might prefer to ignore this issue, but it’s not about to go away, especially with the UK due to hold the crucial Cop26 climate summit next year. If Joe Biden wins November’s US election, international cooperation could spark back into life; if Donald Trump is returned, then other countries might have to face a US-less response to the issue.