Boris Johnson may be able to explain his U-turn on imposing a second national lockdown on England in policy terms, arguing as he did last night that he favoured trying to keep as many businesses operating as possible while taking other steps to drive down the rate of infection. But it is far harder to justify politically because of the way he conducted himself while resisting the idea of the lockdown.
The Prime Minister appears to have regarded the difference between his local approach and the ‘circuit-breaker’ favoured by Sir Keir Starmer as a campaigning opportunity. Not only did the Conservative party publish a now widely-mocked tweet criticising Labour for ‘wanting repeated national lockdowns’, but Johnson turned up to his Commons clashes with the Labour leader armed with pre-prepared lines attacking the Labour leader. They included the tag ‘Captain Hindsight’, and repeated complaints that Starmer wasn’t being wholly supportive of the government’s approach. That ‘Captain Hindsight’ line was not the sort of bitter parting shot that David Cameron used to produce when he was over-excited at PMQs, but something scripted because the Prime Minister’s team clearly thought it would stick.
Johnson and his aides appear to have also thought it was worth mocking the very idea of a national lockdown. Only last week, Johnson told Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions that: ‘It is a bit incoherent of the Right Hon. and learned gentleman to attack local lockdowns when he wants to plunge the whole country back into a damaging lockdown for weeks on end. And he has no clue about how he would propose to get the country out of that – does he?’ He later accused Starmer of wanting to ‘turn the lights out with a full national lockdown’.
It is easy to quote someone’s old arguments back at them once the facts have changed. But the mistake Johnson made was to take Starmer’s arguments as a political attack, rather than to acknowledge them as an alternative point of view which he, as the more mature statesman, would consider. After all, ministers were, at the start of this pandemic at least, very keen to emphasise the importance of working cross-party on this. They seem in the later stages to have mistaken the importance of rising above the day-to-day sniping of ordinary politics for expecting the opposition to tell them they’re doing everything right all the time (hence Matt Hancock’s infamous instruction to Labour frontbencher Dr Rosena Allin-Khan to change her tone when questioning him).
This week’s Prime Minister’s Questions may well see the ‘Captain Hindsight’ tag come back to haunt Johnson. Does he now, with the benefit of a bit of hindsight himself, accept that a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown earlier in the autumn would have caused far less economic pain and might even have saved more lives? And what will his tone be as he answers this question? Given that this won’t be the last time Johnson has to dramatically change course in his handling of the virus, it might be wise to switch to gracious statesman mode, rather than continue as though this is election season. By now he has enough hindsight to teach him that political lesson at least.
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