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How a crisis changed everything

by
18 December 2020

Politicians expected turbulence in 2020 — but not a descent into an unknowable future, says Mark D’Arcy

PA

The Houses of Parliament at the start of the first full week of the four-week lockdown, in November

The Houses of Parliament at the start of the first full week of the four-week lockdown, in November

ONCE, Brexit was the all-consuming issue that drove out all other considerations, so sweeping that the normal stuff of political discourse — tax and spend, homes and schools, defence, and the environment — were all eclipsed. Then along came Covid-19, and, suddenly, even Brexit was relegated, at least for a while.

Harold Macmillan should be with us at this hour, delivering the line “Events, my dear boy, events”, in a stylishly nonchalant drawl. Our leaders always expected 2020 to be a tough year, but they had just won an election fought on getting Brexit done; so they were expecting a mopping-up operation and transitional turbulence, rather than a mega-crisis which has transformed, well, everything.

A Government that was glowing with confidence and command a year ago now contemplates an unknowable future, in which the deciding factors will not be the edicts of ministers, but epidemiology, mass psychology, and the horrible unpredictability of a scrambled economy.

 

A MORE subtle unknown is how — if — the pandemic has changed society and, therefore politics.

Once the new vaccines have immunised the population, will the country default back to factory settings, or will new attitudes to community and new working patterns drive a change in what voters demand of their government? Or, to put it another way, will Britain emerge from 2020 more collectivist and reconciled to big-state government, intervening much more in the economy and in individual lives?

For example, a muscular state was able (at least briefly) to more or less end homelessness during the first lockdown, scooping people off the streets and into hotels. It showed what could be done when the normal inhibitions about public money were dropped. It was an interesting demonstration that will not have been lost on campaigners in that field and others.

For a while, at least, much higher government spending on the health service is certain: the vaccination programme could well become an annual event, plus the need to address the treatment backlogs and mental-health consequences of the lockdowns. Those are obvious lasting legacies of 2020.

Further down the road, the impact of the pandemic on the elderly and those with learning disabilities has given new impetus to the demand for serious reform of adult social care. But what has not changed is the huge price-tag attached to serious change; so, the public reaction to, for example, inheritance-tax changes could be a test of how far attitudes have really changed.

Then there are expensive commitments to combating climate change by decarbonising the economy, and large-scale infrastructure projects to which ministers are committed. Those are just some early items on a very long shopping list — too long for the Treasury.

It’s nothing new for ministers, and especially the Chancellor, to be besieged by spending demands, but the pandemic and its aftermath have pushed these to a new level, and, to pay for them, government borrowing has soared to dizzy heights. Somehow, they will want financial reconstruction to go hand in hand with social reconstruction, which will not be easy to pull off.

The Government is still backing HS2, the high-speed rail link, and, indeed, is currently pushing through the latest legislation for the next phase, but later phases of the scheme may be shelved. The pandemic seems to have got ministers off the hook on Heathrow and Gatwick expansion for a while: it could be years before air travel recovers to its pre-Covid levels, and big new infrastructure investment is promised to the North.

PAThe Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, during a visit to the headquarters of Octopus Energy in London, last week 

MY GUESS is that one of the most likely early casualties of any spending cull will be the multi-billion-pound “restoration and renewal” of the Palace of Westminster itself; the current Government has never been enthusiastic, and getting parliamentarians to don a hair shirt will be a tactful starting point for any new austerity drive, whatever the objective virtues of revamping the home of Parliament.

One bit of retrenchment that has already happened is the decision to reduce UK aid spending from 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to 0.5 per cent (News, 27 November) — a saving of about £4 billion, which looks likely to provoke a rebellion by some Conservative MPs, when the Government moves to change the law to drop the commitment to 0.7 per cent (News, 4 December).

That cut also has vocal supporters in Parliament and the press; cutting, or even controlling, other spending programmes looks a very tough task, especially when the Government’s “levelling-up” agenda implies a shift in spending away from the South, to left-behind areas.

That will mean some sharp changes for some voters. An iron law of politics is that those who gain from this process pocket their winnings with a perfunctory smile, while those who lose scream their fury and protest at the ballot box.

It could be about to bite. One of the political landmarks of 2021 will be a massive set of local elections: the ones due for 2021, plus the ones postponed from this year, plus the pent-up council by-elections prevented by the pandemic. Maybe, come May, voters will be basking in the long-awaited release of Covid restrictions, but maybe the economic consequences will be making themselves felt.

And then we come to Scotland. If the Scottish Parliament elections, due in May, deliver the kind of majority for the SNP predicted by the polls, the UK will be facing a constitutional crisis, with a real possibility of Scottish independence. Stack that on top of the pandemic and Brexit, and you have a triple crisis that will test the capacity of the State.

 

ALL this will play out in a Parliament and political system ground down by months of crisis. Tempers are visibly fraying, there are occasional tantrums in the House, and — again — the relentless focus on Brexit and Covid-19 means that, while other issues can be raised, there is always a vibe that these are problems for another day.

It should not be underestimated how strange this year in Parliament has been. The new intake elected just before Christmas 2019 had barely begun to find its way around the Palace of Westminster when the lockdown came down.

All the normal processes of acclimatisation ground to a halt; the familiar bonding (or feuding) experiences of previous Commons generations were not there; friendships and alliances were harder to forge; and even MPs’ personal staff were mostly working from home. Crucially, it has been much harder for party whips to get to know their new troops, their beliefs, and their breaking points. None of this is unique to Parliament, but few workplaces had a new generation seeking to learn the ropes in such an unexpected environment.

One outcome seems to be the emergence of a factional WhatsApp-based politics: something visible on both sides of the Commons, and in the founding of endless pressure groups such as the NRG (Northern Research Group: Conservatives campaigning for more funds for their new “Red Wall” northern gains); the CRG, (Covid Recovery Group: Conservatives questioning the Government’s pandemic strategy, often in pretty combative terms); and ginger groups on issues such as China.

And that’s just on the Conservative side: Labour has its own splits, and there are even hairline cracks visible in the SNP, whose iron party discipline over the past few years has, until recently, been a thing of Westminster wonderment.

Somehow, the normal bonds of party loyalty seem weaker in the current Commons. “The sociology has changed,” says one former Cabinet minister, who believes that instinct is leading many new-intake MPs to hive into campaigning groups with like- minded colleagues, forging loyalties to them rather than to the wider party. That could turn the big parties into loose confederations of warring, or at least argumentative, tribes, and it provides an easy way for the factional furies to be unleashed when the pressure is on.

 

AND, at some time next year, the pressure will be on. There will be inquests into the Government’s handling of those twin crises, Covid and Brexit, and much of what is going on in politics now is about positioning for an inevitable blame game.

There will be international comparisons of Covid-19 mortality rates, and contentious accounts of negotiating manoeuvres in Brussels. Familiar battles over the efficacy and timing of lockdowns and the virtues of different trade arrangements will be re-enacted — and the voters will have a chance to give their verdict in those May elections, which already look likely to boil down to a de facto referendum on the Government’s competence.

Fasten your seatbelts.

 

Mark D’Arcy is a parliamentary correspondent for BBC News.

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