Boris Johnson’s In A Holding Pattern On Covid, But Is Keir Starmer Too?

Government feels in holiday mode, but the virus hasn’t taken a bank holiday break

You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.

Just six days ago, Matt Hancock’s name was mud, his reputation ground into the dirt by Dominic Cummings’ onslaught. Today, the health secretary returned to his bouncy ways as he seized on the news that the UK reported not a single death from Covid for the first time since last July. “The vaccines are clearly working,” he said.

Yet while it may look to some as if Hancock has gone from zero to hero in less than a week, he himself added a note of caution about “cases continuing to rise”. Although in Bolton there is early evidence of levelling off of cases of the ‘Indian’ variant, nearby Blackburn, Rossendale, Ribble Valley and Hyndburn are all seeing spikes.

Although case numbers are low overall, it’s no wonder many in government are concerned. Week on week, cases have gone up more than 31% and, crucially, hospitalisations by more than 23%. That’s two of the lights on the government’s dashboard flashing red, just as the zero deaths figure is flashing a healthy green (down 10% on the week). Given the lags we are all by now familiar with, those deaths may not stay zero in coming weeks.

Despite the concern, Boris Johnson is not worried enough to give anyone an update on whether his planned June 21 unlocking will go ahead as planned. In our Lobby briefing today, we learned he didn’t even brief his spokesman beforehand. All the spokesman would do was point us towards the PM’s cake-and-eat-it words on the pandemic last Thursday (the “current” data didn’t suggest any need for delay “but we may need to wait”).

The problem with relying on the PM’s words from five days ago is that, well, a week is a very long time in Covid politics. Johnson got married on Saturday and spent Sunday and Monday on a “mini-moon” – a phrase that sounds like a brief display of his buttocks, but is a very short honeymoon, apparently (though perhaps it means both). It all feels a bit like the early pandemic, when his marital concerns (a divorce then, a wedding now) mean Covid is on the backburner.

And in many ways, it feels as if the government machine is not very interested in saying much about Covid for the rest of this week. Grant Shapps has his travel update on Thursday but few expect much change. Michael Gove’s reviews of covid certification and social distancing look either dead on arrival or delayed to June 14. Jonathan Van-Tam said two weeks ago we would have a “ranging shot” of the transmissibility of the Indian variant by last week. It looks like that estimate may not materialise this week either.

With the Commons in recess, there seems to be a generalised holding pattern going on, in political and policy terms. The public seemed to have more of a sense of urgency about Covid than the PM this weekend, with thousands of young people queuing for their jab outside Twickenham stadium when they could have just packed the pubs.

But the virus doesn’t take a parliamentary recess or a bank holiday break. The rise in case numbers is concerning the most even-handed of scientists. The Bank of England hoped for a V-shaped economic recovery this year, but some current graph projections look worryingly V-shaped on Covid cases. Scotland and England are on the same trajectory, though Wales (which has 10% more people given first doses) is not.

The uncertainty is perhaps why Nicola Sturgeon essentially paused her own roadmap today. While the public have not been told any updates on the Indian/delta variant’s transmissibility, maybe Sturgeon has? I understand Keir Starmer is currently holding off calling for any delay to the June 21 unlocking date, until after he gets a private briefing from Sage.

Starmer’s main problem is that no matter what he says, or how correctly he calls it, the public may not be listening. “Keir’s first 16 months have been the politics of the pandemic, and his next eight months may be the politics of the pandemic. It’s very, very difficult,” one insider says. More than anything Labour says or does, Starmer’s team are acutely aware that the Batley and Spen by-election next month could reflect vaccine jab numbers, whether voters can order a drink at the bar and where they can go on holiday.

In the meantime, what Starmer can hope to do is show the public what kind of man he is, as well as what kind of politician. His latest Piers Morgan’s Life Stories interview on ITV tonight shows him choking back tears as he talks about his disabled mum, his strained relationship with his dad, and the death of his wife’s mother. The New Statesman had some polling last week showing that 37% of voters say they just don’t know enough about him to make a judgement yet. His team see that as a huge opportunity, not a weakness, and believe interviews like this could shift that dial.

Picking a popular ITV programme was a smart move for Starmer because he needs to reassure a key demographic that he’s a walking, talking human being. Moreover, Labour’s lingering problems with working class voters were highlighted not just in Hartlepool but in London on May 6. While Sadiq Khan made gains with some upper middle class voters, this fascinating breakdown by Lewis Baston points to swings towards the Tories in key council estate areas in deprived parts of the city.

Like many working class kids who went on to do things their parents never dreamed of, he’s clearly uncomfortable with any idea he would exploit his private life for public consumption. Yet in many ways, Starmer embodies the aspiration story (dad a factory worker, son highest prosecutor in the land) that Labour needs to reconnect with voters it has lost.

While the Covid narrative dominates all our lives, Starmer has to keep reminding us he’ll be ready for the moment the conversation moves on to something else. With politics more volatile than ever, it’s even possible he too could move from zero to hero if he can use this May’s election defeats to show a sense of urgency for change.