Is Boris Johnson Losing Control Of Coronavirus, Again?

PM set to break his silence, but he needs a new plan to get the public to listen.

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Illegally blond

For some, the big news at Westminster today was cabinet minister Brandon Lewis’s candid words on new government legislation drafted in the event of a no-deal Brexit. “This does break international law – in a very specific and limited way,” the Northern Ireland secretary admitted to MPs.

That outburst of honesty swiftly smashed the careful comms that No.10 and other ministers had tried to deploy as they sidestepped the question of legality and instead suggested this was all about technicalities. “We are committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement,” George Eustice and the PM’s spokesman had trilled. Lewis put paid to that particular line-to-take.

Add in the resignation of Jonathan Jones, head of the government’s legal service (another excellent FT scoop) over this apparent threat to the rule of law, and it was easy to see why several senior Tories felt obliged to speak out. Theresa May suggested the UK wouldn’t be “trusted”, Bob Neill, Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood, Roger Gale, Simon Hoare and George Freeman all piled in too.

What was striking however was the way Keir Starmer didn’t really go for the PM over the Lewis remarks. As I wrote last night, the Labour leader’s whole strategy is to avoid feeding Tory attack lines. Even though he knew Jones professionally when they were both lawyers, his main message on Brexit was that Johnson was in danger of breaking his word to the public.

Instead of falling into the trap of being painted as a ‘Remoaner’, Starmer tried a political judo throw, using the weight of the PM’s “Get Brexit Done” mantra against him (“Get on, negotiate, get the deal that was promised,” he told ITV News). As part of his long-term game plan, the criticism centred on competence, keeping promises and trust.

Starmer was also wise to focus on the more pressing emergency of Covid, saying the sooner Brexit was sorted the sooner the whole government could devote its energies to fighting the virus. And in perhaps his most critical words to date on the pandemic, he said the test and trace system was “on the verge of collapse”.

Some in government are furious at what they see as Starmer’s opportunistic hyperbole (irony alert: isn’t that the PM’s own political style?) on testing. Yet NHS Test and Trace’s Sarah Jane Marsh apologised publicly for a problem with laboratory bottlenecks and Matt Hancock admitted the problem could last two more weeks. Those are two weeks the country can ill afford.

But it was the local council leader in Bolton, which was today subject to fresh lockdown curbs, who had the most chilling words of all. David Greenhalgh said that the virus was now “moving round uncontrolled”. Johnson is set to address the nation on Wednesday, and given that he hasn’t fronted a No.10 press conference since July, that sense of national duty and accountability feels well overdue.

Cutting the legal number of people in a gathering from 30 to 6 is a start. A much stronger message would come however if the PM set out a clear national roadmap for re-entering national lockdown, just as he set one out for exiting it. In Bolton, pubs are reduced to takeaways and separate households are banned from mixing (beyond a support ‘bubble’). If those were the next steps for the whole country, at least there would be certainty.

Government insiders know that many of the PM’s core voters are more likely to sit up and take notice of legal restrictions on going to the pub than they are to worry about claims that the UK is breaching international laws and treaties.

As it is, we have no sense of the hierarchy of national lockdown restrictions, beyond knowing that schools will be the last to close. If the number of cases (today well above 2,000) and deaths (at 30 the highest for months) continues to rise nationally, wouldn’t it be better to let the public know what freedoms are at risk and in what order, so they can “plan for the worst” (copyright B Johnson), having hoped for the best?

Everyone will hope that the surge in deaths is a blip and that healthy young carriers avoid spreading the virus to older people. But for a PM who made his name on “taking back control”, the spectre of an out-of-control coronavirus and, more importantly, the lack of a clear strategy for reining it in, would be very damaging indeed.

Quote Of The Day

“Tearing up treaties is what rogue states do. I can’t recall our ever doing so.”

Lord Kerr, former UK ambassador to Brussels and Washington

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Matt Hancock told the Commons that a “sharp rise” in coronavirus cases in recent days in the UK is “concerning”. There were 2,420 more coronavirus cases in Britain over the past 24 hours.

Downing Street is looking at cutting the maximum permitted size for social gatherings in England.

Sir Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, quit in protest at the government’s Internal Market Bill, due to be published on Wednesday. Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer said “it suggests something pretty rotten is happening in government”.

Theatre impresario and composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber told MPs that the arts are at the “point of no return” following damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

Housing ministry minister Simon Clarke resigned from the government for personal reasons, including “balancing my own life against the demands of office”. He was replaced by Luke Hall. In a mini-reshuffle, Kelly Tolhurst moved from transport to MHCLG and Robert Courts joined transport.

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