Week in Review: The spirit of Brexit haunts No.10 over covid

In a few months, we'll see the practical impact of Brexit - queues at the border, the tedious return of bureaucracy on trade with Europe, the addition of a second crisis to add to the one we are already witnessing over covid. But for the time being, the Brexit impact on No.10's pandemic response is one of spirit, not practicalities.

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson govern in the same way they campaigned: by closing tribal ranks, treating criticism as conspiracy, and refusing to ever, under any circumstances, do what their opponents suggest.

It wasn't always like this. Governments once tried to maintain broad electoral coalitions. They were capable of backing down where they were doing themselves damage. Nobody enjoyed doing those U-turns, but they did them anyway, out of a recognition that failing to do so would be worse. And there were occasions when the same has happened with Johnson. Earlier this year, he would quietly U-turn on issues which weren't strongly associated with Labour, like mask wearing or the eviction ban.

But something has changed. Labour's role is now more prominent, at a local and national level. This week, Johnson found himself taking serious damage from his fight with Andy Burnham and Keir Starmer. In both cases, he turned his face against it, and took more damage than he needed.

In Burnham's case, the prime minister tried to take away the additional £60 million he'd offered Manchester out of spite, before backing down the next day. If the government was open to critical voices, it would have instantly realised how this would play out. But it is not. It is a closed cult-like structure, an oyster with no pearl in it. So when Johnson announced he would provide the £60 million, it was too late - he'd already come across as petty and vindictive, using funding not for public health or economic well being, but as a weapon against political enemies.

In Starmer's case, an opposition day motion on free school meals saw Johnson push his MPs into explicit opposition, forcing them individually to own it and triggering attacks on them in the local press. "Just how could you starve our city's children?" ran the headline in the Yorkshire Evening Post today.

The footballer Marcus Rashford is now helping to coordinate local business initiatives to provide free food for children over the winter. It is turning into the equivalent of the 'clap for carers' evenings during the first lockdown. But this time it is not an initiative which ministers can jump onboard of. It is operated in spite of them, in many ways as a riposte to their refusal to help. People's sense of solidarity-under-fire - their best aspirations about their community - are being channelled into a movement which is explicitly against No.10. The government is cast in the role of villain.

This approach isn't restricted to Labour. The same tribalist approach applies to the variety of other enemies, from the media, to the courts, to the civil service. This is what happens when you believe that you are the great representative of the people and that all opposition is illegitimate. It's what happens to a government when it rejects the notion of critical thinking, of challenging itself, and instead hunkers down into a cabal of ideological puritans convinced of their own intellectual superiority.

During the last election, that proved an effective approach. With a culture war split, Johnson's Tories could make common cause with Brexit-supporting northern voters in what suddenly looked like a broad coalition. But in fact it wasn't. It was a reorientation of politics on identity war lines. Now that identity dispute is fading. It is replaced instead with a pandemic, which does not easily fit into culture war lines. The trenchant, myopic tribalism of old cannot defeat covid. And it cannot maintain the voting spread which put the party in power.

We have a Brexit administration dealing with non-Brexit problems. Whatever those problems were, these dynamics would eventually have emerged. A movement based on treating practical issues with identity arguments was always unsuited for government. But it is our great misfortune that the problems we happen to face are of such enormous severity, and that our lives and our financial well being depend on them being dealt with competently.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out now.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: Acceptance is the best cure for covid anxiety

This is a difficult period to live through. We all know it's coming. Every day, the evidence of a return to spring - or something approximating spring - grows.

In all likelihood, it's already too late to prevent it. There is a constant buzzing, a low level anxiety, in which all the worst elements of that period - the suffering, the loneliness, the financial terror - start to reassert themselves.

The worst element of this period is the uncertainty. It is as widespread as covid itself.

It's quite clear that the government does not know what it is doing. It has had the summer to sort out a test-and-trace system, but plainly failed to do so. The proposals it comes out with, like the 10pm curfew, make no sense. They are based on internal party management rather than disease prevention. Any notion that its approach was based on scientific advice died this week when it emerged that Boris Johnson had ignored the Sage guidance for a short 'circuit-breaker' lockdown.

The political splits make that lack of clarity more severe. Labour has now pulled away decisively from the government approach, basing its proposals on the Sage advice. Local leaders are striking out hard over No.10's demands.

The regional approach to covid-prevention increases that sense of uncertainty. We don't know if our local area will fall into tier one, two or three. In many cases we don't know what those tiers entail, or how long they will last. It's hard to work out the bizarre social mathematics of it - what happens if we visit family in another area, for instance, or the seemingly arbitrary additional restrictions which apply to larger households. And then there is that horrifying additional point, that most scientists do not even believe that these restrictions will work.

This is worsened by the fact that the government is dragged into each financial assistance programme. The offers they have made to those put in tier three are plainly insufficient, and their insistence that they can be topped up with Universal Credit are inadequate. It resists moves on free school meals over half term and Christmas holiday, in the same way that it did summer holidays. But because it caved in last time, the widespread presumption is that it will cave in again. And yet we don't know that, so those affected are kept on this ceaseless production-line of uncertainty, expecting to be saved but with no assurance they will be.

On top of all that, the prospect of a vaccine - the only thing that can possibly make this nightmare go away - is still unsettlingly vague. We keep telling ourselves it will emerge in early 2021, but there is no confidence it will. And even if it does, the distribution problem means that these restrictions will affect most of us for all of next year, to some degree or other.
We don't really know anything, and that's partly what makes it so unsettling.

The stakes are very severe. They threaten the lives of the people we know. They threaten our economic well being. And they threaten our social nature - our ability to see our friends and family. After a glimmer of normality over summer, where we dusted ourselves off from lockdown and got to be with those we loved again, it is painful to contemplate retreating back to our previous state. The encroaching cold and darkness of winter doesn't help either.

We get stuck in this difficult emotional position where our personal needs and our political views come completely unstuck. You end up feeling abject horror at the prospect of a lockdown, combined with a recognition that it is necessary.

This feels odd - mourning your own preferred option. It's a testament to just what a terrible place we're in. But it is also something else: people operating at the highest levels of political morality. Supporting something which fills you with horror because it is the right thing to do.

In truth, there's only one real cure to the anxiety which all this uncertainty entails. It is acceptance. Horrible thought, but it's true. If you keep grasping for something which is out of reach, you only get upset. At some point you have to reset your brain, lower your expectations, and try to put your mood within the parameters which it has to operate inside of.

If we go into winter expecting the degree of social life we had in summer, we'll go mad. We have to start lowering our expectations for the next few months. We have to - and this is arguably the most depressing thought of all - start thinking about Zoom chats as our social outlet. There's nothing appealing about that. But it is the reality. And once a prospect becomes unavoidable, you're in a better position accepting it than railing against it.

Also: Stockpiling is bad, but now might be a good time to buy wine, whisky, recipe books, novels and some films. Might as well make the most of this damn thing.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out now.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Starmer takes on the science mantle with call for 'circuit-breaker' lockdown

The Labour leader saw the opening and he took it. The recent dump of documents from Sage, the scientific advisory group, showed that experts had pushed the government to introduce a short lockdown to get the virus back down to manageable levels. Boris Johnson ignored this advice and instead pressed ahead with a watered-down set of proposals.

This signalled a decisive shift in the politics of coronavirus. Until now, Johnson had defended himself by insisting he was always following the science. That's now over. He is demonstrably not following the science.

That created an opportunity for Keir Starmer and it's one he took with both hands this afternoon. In the first of his monthly televised press conferences, he demanded the government introduce the circuit breaker Johnson had rejected, lasting for two to three weeks, but with an exemption for schools. "You know that the science backs this approach," he told the prime minister. "You know that the restrictions you're introducing won't be enough. You can't keep delaying this and come back to the House of Commons every few weeks with another plan that won't work."

The move brings Starmer in line with public opinion - a position the Labour party has rarely been in in recent years. Johnson is torn between the increasingly vocal lockdown-sceptics in his Cabinet and parliamentary party and the more sensible voices around him  who want tougher action - although to be fair there are precious few of them. The public is not so evenly split. A snap YouGov poll last night found 40% of people didn't think the current government plan went far enough, next to 15% who said it went too far and 19% who thought it had the balance about right.

The Cummings/Johnson Downing Street operation is obsessed with staying on the right side of public opinion. The internecine warfare within the party has forced it to break that rule. 

It also put the Labour leader on much more stable political ground. Johnson is deciding each covid policy on the basis of a compromise within his political tribe. That's where nonsense like the 10pm curfew comes from - not from any kind of empirical reasoning, but because it was palatable to the hawks and doves around his Cabinet table. It leads to ever-weirder regulations which simply do not make sense outside of the room that the factional dispute played out in.

Basing your policy on Sage advice is far more effective. Of course there is no one set scientific view on what is happening, but there is a very widespread scientific consensus on not allowing the virus to flush through the community, as many Tory MPs demand, and that a short sharp lockdown will buy some time and help reduce its spread.

Grounding the Labour party position in the guidance from Sage provides clarity and justification. It is also likely to be the outcome which anyway needs to be eventually pursued. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty's comment yesterday that he was "not confident" the base level of restrictions in 'very high' alert areas would be enough to dampen the spread of the virus was not just a moment of political theatre. It was a view based on the evidence. It strongly suggests that a further lock-down of some sort will be required, sooner or later - and the later it is, the longer and more draconian it will have to be.

When it does happen, Starmer will now be in a position to credibly claim that the government is following his lead.

It was difficult until this afternoon to state exactly what Starmer's alternative coronavirus policy was, apart from the fact that it would be more competent than Johnson's. His support for the government's policy in the earlier days of his leadership was serving to make his approach increasingly muddled. Now there is a much clearer impression. No.10 made the pivotal error of moving away from the scientific advice. It is therefore lost in the wind, blowing around by the loudest voices in the Tory parliamentary party.

Starmer has now claimed the position the government departed. It's a smart move, tactically and politically. But it is also the right thing to do. Once covid responses become dependant on compromising in a tribal dispute, they quickly degenerate into foolishness and inadequacy. Sticking with Sage provides the most reliable course for reason and credibility.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out now.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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