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You don’t have to be a policy wonk or a virologist to tell that the government have fudged it yet again. Despite mocking the Labour Party’s call for a short “circuit break” national lockdown some weeks ago, the Tories have now had to adopt the policy, with a generous doubling of the proposed two-week period of compulsory hermitage. Whatever you think about the lockdown— necessary sacrifice for the greater good or horrific imposition on civil rights— it’s clear that there are going to be severe consequences, especially for the government.
The first and most obvious PR hit will come from the backtracking. When Sir Keir Starmer proposed a circuit break— which the Tories aggressively criticised— he was calling for it to be two weeks, but they have made it four weeks. If the government had implemented it when Starmer first suggested it, we could be on the other side of the lockdown by now. Despite some of their libertarian instincts, there are probably a lot of MPs on the Tory benches who will display 20:20 hindsight of their own and wish they just heeded Starmer’s call and got it over with.
Public compliance, or lack thereof, presents yet another challenge for the government. Reliable data on the matter is hard to come by, but YouGov found that one in five people surveyed admitted to breaking lockdown rules more regularly in the wake of the absurd saga of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard castle. The nature of the lockdown rules: not leaving the house more than once a day, only going shopping for essentials, keeping 2 metres away from all other people outside your house are relatively difficult to abide by perfectly that virtually no one is likely to have complied with them at all times.
We all heard horror stories of people getting arrested for breaking the first lockdown rules, but this seemed relatively uncommon. As long as you aren’t hosting raves in your garden, it’s probably quite easy to quietly go about your normal life if you so choose, visiting friends and the like, albeit without the possibility of getting a coffee anywhere. If people do strictly follow these new rules, then the social consequences may be severe, people do not generally like to be shut inside and despite the fact that the public tend to support lockdown measures to control the spread of the virus, at some point people’s patience will wear thin. If the government’s strategy is to simply go in and out of lockdown until there is a mass produced and widely available vaccine, they may find that support for lockdowns will drop. If people on the whole do not comply, the government will be held responsible for a failure of communication, governance, and public health. Either way, the future seems uncertain at best for the Tories.
No discussion of this topic would be complete without a mention of Rishi Sunak. The new-ish chancellor is a prominent character in the psychodrama of Tory governance. Appointed, presumably as a last minute yes-man, to replace Sajid Javid, who was dropped for refusing to fire his own advisors and start using the Number 10 team, he has now developed a power base of his own, becoming the most personally popular member of the cabinet by quite some distance (according to YouGov polling) Despite his uninspired, moderate Keynesian policies, Sunak has still cultivated an impressive image. After a decade of the Conservatives rolling back the frontiers of the state through austerity at all costs, Sunak’s public investment looks so benevolent by comparison it has allowed him to spin himself as the new David Lloyd George, in a highly personalised PR campaign which seeks to paint him as an economic saint wrapping his arms round a nation in the midst of catastrophe. This has been a good crisis for Sunak’s career, but it won’t last forever.
The national debt is ballooning to levels unseen since the 1960s, the longer the crisis goes on, the greater the pressure for furlough extensions and similar measures and the more expensive it will become for the treasury. The more expensive the crisis becomes, the greater the pressure from the swelling ranks of deficit hawks on the Tory benches for a dose of post-COVID austerity measures.
The Conservatives are running dangerously low on political capital, and austerity is not something the public will want, it will have to be heavily disguised through spin, but the chancellor has already nodded in this direction, proclaiming his intention to “balance the books” in his speech to the Conservative Party virtual conference.
This all paints a worrying vision of the British future. Those of us who were hoping this crisis would be a short distraction from regular life and politics will be disappointed, it looks very much like the economic, social and political consequences of it are going to define our political future, and that of the government, for a long time to come.