Can Boris Johnson Keep The Support Of The British Public Over Coronavirus?

PM will have to maintain a cross-party consensus over coming months.

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Schools out for Corona

With every passing day of the Covid-19 crisis, something more extraordinary happens to make us reset life as we know it. Today’s big announcements by Boris Johnson - school closures and the prospect of an actual ‘London lockdown’ - were the latest shocks to the system that underlined just how enormous is the threat to life posed by this awful virus.

For a whole cohort of teenagers, 2020 will be the year that their exams were torn up and futures thrown into doubt. Once again showing that the speed of the spread of this disease is outpacing our government’s ability to devise coping mechanisms, it seems that GCSEs and A-levels will be determined on predicted grades rather than having to be delayed to the autumn.‌

That’s a huge call, not least as it condemns pupils who had hoped to improve on their mocks or assessments from the past year. Many will be furious that the system couldn’t just tip over into the next academic year, with perhaps schools and universities delaying the ‘new’ year to October. That may be a solution for football leagues, but it doesn’t look likely for our education system.

Of course, for all those not taking exams the immediate impact on their families is just as momentous. The decision to close schools and pre-school nurseries to all but children of ‘critical workers’ (and a separate category of ‘vulnerable’ children at risk of abuse at home) will mean many parents having to stop work immediately. Ministers may face heavy criticism over how that definition of a ‘critical worker’ (due to be published tomorrow) is drafted.

Given that many working parents will have to stop work from Monday, there is now huge pressure on the government to have ready by Monday its plan for ‘employment support’ to subsidise their wages and keep them in work. Yet it seems there is a consultation with trade unions on the best model for that support, something that can take days if not weeks.

But the most ominous news today came when the PM signalled that a London lockdown could turn from City rumour (it was rife for most of the day) into reality. Some expect it from midnight Thursday, some on Saturday, others think a natural time would be midnight Sunday. The ‘lockdown’ could be as mild as ordering pubs, restaurants and arts venues to close. It could be as draconian as a French-style edict that only those with vital reasons to leave their home are allowed on the streets. Passport to Pimlico, without the gags.

The most telling moment of these press conferences now seem to come at the end, when Johnson riffs after the Q&A to deliver his personal homily. Today, he used a question about the morality of obeying coronavirus restrictions to talk about how he didn’t like to crack down hard on personal liberty but would do so if needed.

Torn between his career as a contrarian columnist and his duties as PM, he still hasn’t quite resolved the tension. No, he didn’t think people were ‘immoral’ for disobeying advice that could save lives, he said (vintage Spectator-era Johnson). “Of course people must take their own decisions,” he said (vintage Telegraph-era Johnson). But within seconds he gave another huge hint he would use emergency powers to force changes in behaviour (new era, Commons-majority PM Johnson).

Given that we have been told for weeks by the chief medical adviser and chief scientist that public ‘fatigue’ over restrictions on their behaviour could prove counter-productive, it’s somewhat alarming that there is no minimum timeframe for the drastic measures announced to date. Will healthy people put up with indefinite school closures that keep them off work? Will they meekly accept orders to avoid ‘non-essential’ social contact and travel? Without any guidance on how long their misery will last?

That’s precisely why Johnson needs the public to trust him as never before. And that’s perhaps why there is so much unease among Labour and other parties over the emergency legislation due to get its first reading in the Commons on Thursday. The fact that the powers will last for two years is leading to a growing backlash. Even normally hardline Labour figures think a one-year sunset clause is the minimum needed. Some Tory civil liberties types could make life interesting on this point too.

With a majority of 80, the PM could railroad this bill through unchanged. But the cost would be to lose the tentative cross-party consensus that has just about held to date. Johnson reached out to Jeremy Corbyn and even the SNP today over renters’ concerns and over employment support. That kind of broad-based approach will prove vital in coming months.‌

Maybe now the PM also needs to think about something even more radical: giving opposition leaders some formal role on an advisory body on coronavirus. Just months ago, the idea of a government of national unity (GNU) was ridiculed by Brexit hardliners, but the national crisis could mean something like it is now needed.

The likely election of Keir Starmer in a couple of weeks’ time would give Johnson the perfect moment to act on this. Of course, the opposition would still have the right to disagree and scrutinise, but a more formal buy-in beyond occasional Privy Council meetings could lead to better decision making overall.

In 1935 a new Labour leader called Clement Attlee lost by a big majority to a Tory PM. But when the war came, Attlee became an essential co-partner with Winston Churchill in the national effort to defeat our greatest enemy. With fresh speculation that the Army will be deployed to help combat the virus, the idea of a government of national unity may provide the legitimacy needed for the long-lasting measures many fear we now need.

Quote Of The Day

“We will not hesitate to go further, and faster, in the days and weeks ahead.”

Boris Johnson warns that even more draconian measures are on the way

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

All English schools and nurseries will close for most children and pupils from Friday afternoon until further notice, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced. GCSE and A-level exams will not take place either. Scotland and Wales schools will also close.

The number of deaths from coronavirus rose to 104. The number of people who tested positive was 2,626, a rise of 676.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced emergency legislation to ban all new evictions for three months.

Glastonbury Festival and the Eurovision Song Contest were cancelled. Supermarkets introduced rationing on goods to prevent panic buying of items like pasta and sanitiser.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have all agreed to let customers go to the website and without any data costs.

The Scottish government has confirmed it is no longer planning to hold an independence referendum this year. Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said the plans had been “paused” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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