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Paul Vallely: Prime Minister’s exit hokey-cokey  

15 May 2020

Politics informs his strategy, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, on Wednesday

Boris Johnson in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, on Wednesday

I HAVE been giving the Government the benefit of the doubt with regard to its handling of Covid-19. But then, this week, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, contemptuously said: “I think things are fine” in reply to an interviewer who had asked why the Prime Minister said on Sunday that peo­ple should return to work on Monday — only for the Foreign Secretary to then declare that this would happen on Wednesday. The confusion around the detail was telling.

Until now, the Opposition has been reluctant to shatter the consensus that we must all pull to­­gether. Labour politicians have asked questions, bu­­t have refrained from political attacks, knowing that the coronavirus crisis is perhaps too big for any government to have managed without making some mistakes. There will be time for a full in­­quiry later. But the announcement on how Britain should come out of lockdown has lifted the veil. This is not about logistics and management: it is about pol­­­­­itics.

Last week, ministers began briefing on the exit process with such enthusiasm that the tabloid press ran headlines such as “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons” — ignoring that day’s news that the total deaths had topped 30,000.

National leaders in Scotland, Wales, and North­­­­­­­ern Ireland were alarmed. So were the sci­entific advisers. After all, the NHS is still strug­gling to meet the target of 100,000 virus tests a day. A viable track-and-trace system is still not op­­­­­­­­er­­­­­ative. And the continuing crisis in the na­­tion’s care homes is such that the official ONS figures reveal the true death toll to be more than 50,000. In the face of all that, ministers tried to throw their spin machine into reverse. Then came the Prime Minister’s address to the nation, which increased rather than reduced confusion.

What lies behind these mixed messages? It seems that Boris Johnson was trying to please both those inside the Cabinet who want to pri­oritise saving lives and those whose overriding concern is to rescue the economy. Many of the latter are drawn from the right-wing libertarian Bruges group, which took the hardest line over leaving the European Union. They have a dispro­portionate influence within government because Mr Johnson’s determination to “deliver Brexit” meant that he was able to draw his Cabinet only from the Conservative Party’s B team. Ideology was more important than competence, alas.

The result was Mr Johnson’s hokey-cokey television address, which was so witheringly par­odied by the comedian Matt Lucas in his “Go to work/Don’t go to work” video the day after.

More seriously, it felt to many like an attempt to bounce blue-collar workers back to work with less than 12 hours’ notice and no chance for man­agers to establish safety plans for workplaces or public transport. Cabinet ministers this week have been saying that the new “Stay Alert” slogan is designed, in the words of the Communities Secr­etary Robert Jenrick, both to “encourage people to go to work” and to “stay at home as much as possible”.

We do not yet have all the information that will enable us to know how well the Govern­ment has handled this crisis. But we are, sadly, now able to reach a conclusion on its po­­­litical judgement.

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