Boris's lockdown gamble could spell big trouble for Labour

28 December 2021

10:12 PM

28 December 2021

10:12 PM

Has Boris Johnson just been thrown a lifeline by a devolution settlement that has caused nothing but trouble for UK prime ministers over the past 20 years?

The PM’s decision not to impose further restrictions on social mixing before New Year celebrations has been underlined in the public consciousness by the opposite choices of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Among the UK nations, only in England will people be free to indulge in New Year festivities on anything like a normal basis. In Scotland, in particular, where the occasion customarily eclipses Christmas as the key celebration of the year, there is growing resentment that Nicola Sturgeon has chosen to be a party-pooper once again.

But the caution displayed by all the devolved administrations serves to emphasise Johnson’s relative boldness in judging that the key Covid indicators, especially the data pointing to Omicron’s lower virulence, means England can proceed for now without further restrictions beyond his relatively light-touch ‘Plan B’ measures that were announced a few weeks ago.

If the course of the next month shows that the PM has got this big call right – and a new trend towards relaxing controls rather than tightening them among governments from South Africa to the US indicates that he might well have done – then public opinion will surely give him credit for that.

It is notable that the public mood has already veered away from previous overwhelming support for any proposed escalation in restrictions and is now far more sceptical about draconian limits on liberty.

It is also the case that the giant backbench rebellion by around 100 Tory MPs before the Commons Christmas recess may have made it practically impossible for Johnson to go down the draconian route in the absence of overwhelming evidence that the NHS faced being overwhelmed.

But nonetheless, there is no disputing that of four UK governments only the one in England, where Johnson’s writ runs, has opted to put liberty above limitations.

The Labour opposition seems already to sense that Johnson may be onto a winner and has backpedalled on its previous support for further restrictions. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting issued a fence-sitting response to Johnson’s decision yesterday in which he merely made ritual demands for the PM to publish the data on which it was based and compile a ‘plan’ explaining how schools and hospitals will ride out the latest Covid wave.

That marked a sharp shift in emphasis from a week earlier when Streeting had accused the PM of running scared of his own backbenchers who wanted to ‘let the virus rip’ after a Cabinet meeting that failed to endorse expected new restrictions.

After a torrid month for the Prime Minister, the huge take-up of the vaccine booster programme and this decision to hold his nerve against the clamour of the medical establishment for a new lockdown give him a chance to present himself once more in his favourite guise as the ‘People’s PM’.

If subsequent events show him to have made the wrong call amid a huge new wave of hospitalisations and deaths then clearly the current conventional wisdom that the PM is in a tailspin from which there is no escape will be strengthened. The devolved administrations will be quick to claim vindication for their own cautious approaches too.

But if Omicron passes through with relatively few deaths, without the NHS getting swamped and with natural resistance to more virulent Covid strains enhanced then we really will have reached a post-pandemic phase in which we learn to live with this new disease. There is every reason then to believe that Labour’s current polling lead will melt away and Johnson’s regime be stabilised.

Such a turn of events is unlikely to restore the PM to anything like the zenith he reached in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 general election. For a start those Conservative MPs who forced his hand over Covid controls will come to suspect that their own wisdom eclipses that of Downing Street – which is not exactly a feeling alien to Tory backbenchers at the best of times. So they will feel emboldened to push him around on other issues too.

But at least the PM will be able to say that after crashing the car into a ditch on a clear day, he did – as promised – pull it out again. The BoJo show will be back on the road.

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