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When Boris Johnson got up in the Commons to confirm the second UK national lockdown, it was not surprising that he lacked his usual ebullience. That characteristic Johnsonian optimism, seen as Tigger-ishly refreshing by his admirers but recklessly inappropriate by his critics, was tempered by his grim warnings about the “existential threat” to the NHS posed by the Covid second wave.
Of course, it doesn’t get grimmer than warning that inaction would mean doctors and nurses could be forced to choose “which patients to treat, who would live and who would die”. But over two hours of facing 100 questions from MPs, the PM was once more at pains to stress the light at the end of the new tunnel.
Despite Michael Gove’s weekend admission that the lockdown (sorry, “tougher national measures” as the PM and No.10 prefers to call it) could last more than four weeks, Johnson insisted this was a time-limited set of rules that will end on December 2. The wriggle room – he said “we intend” to return to a tiered system after that – was so slight that only around a dozen Tory backbenchers sounded upset.
Johnson even had a stab at “what is an exit strategy, what is the way out”, revealing it involved getting the R number below 1 and giving fresh details of his “moonshot” plan to use rapid testing to test whole towns or cities. The Army’s new Winter Defence Force of 7,000 personnel will help on logistics of the mass testing “in a matter of days”.
Yet it was when he said that his new national restrictions would “use this moment to exploit the medical and technical advances we are making” that Keir Starmer looked singularly unimpressed. Starmer was withering about the fact that the PM had dithered for 40 days since Sage first recommended a short lockdown that would indeed have used the breathing space to rebuild test-and-trace and protect hospitals from being overrun. He rightly pointed out that doing it over half-term would have had the added benefit of school closures too.
The case was made even more forcefully hours earlier when Sage member and UCL Professor of epidemiology Andrew Hayward said: “We can’t turn back the clock, but I think if we had chosen a two-week circuit break at that time we would definitely have saved thousands of lives.” But it was Hayward’s second point that perhaps stung the government as much. An earlier short circuit break “would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do”, he said.
It’s this point, that the delay could mean greater harm to both health and wealth, that is a political double whammy for Johnson. But it is also just as potentially wounding to Rishi Sunak, who was seated near the PM in the Commons with a very grave expression indeed. He looked like he was attending a funeral, which was no surprise given that Starmer had spent the day suggesting it was the chancellor’s reputation that had been buried in recent weeks.
With one eye on his possible next opponent at the general election, the Labour leader used his CBI speech to declare Sunak’s move to block a circuit breaker meant that “the chancellor’s name is all over this” raft of extra job losses, closed firms and damage to the public finances. Added to his much more robust anger with Johnson, Starmer is now regularly ridiculing Sunak’s handwritten social media slogans and his repeated botched attempts to anticipate the second wave.
In fact, ‘get shirty and get shorty’ seems to be the new Starmer strategy as he welds Johnson and Sunak’s failures together. It can only be a matter of time before the PM and chancellor appear in Labour ads as Laurel and Hardy (one is skinny and clueless, the other is fat and conceited, both leading the country into “another fine mess”). Or for 1970s viewers, a Tory Little and Large, without the laughs.
The way Sunak’s cringetastic “thanks, PM” moment last week went viral suggests the gloves are already off. Add in the study suggesting EatOutToHelpOut added up to 17% of Covid cases (Sunak ducked this when I asked him about it in a press conference recently) and the shine has come off his reputation as quickly as it was first burnished. His tone may be more reassuring than Johnson’s, but it’s his actions (or lack of them) that is now Labour’s increasing focus.
On the Today programme, Sunak failed to give any answers on very pressing issues such as whether statutory sick pay and isolation payments should be extended and increased. As with the lack of food parcels for those shielding (one to watch), the chancellor is susceptible to the charge that he has ditched his pragmatic largesse at the start of this pandemic for an ideological attempt to tackle the second wave on the cheap, all to win some praise from some Tory MPs.
It was notable that Johnson today stole from Sunak what would normally be a chancellor’s announcement, on raising self-employed support levels. I spotted too several hints from the PM of further largesse, from self-isolation payments (“we will be making a big push on that”) to the three million freelancers excluded (on “those tough cases we will do everything we can to help them through this”). Could the minimum floor for universal credit even be extended too? The First Lord of the Treasury (ie the PM) could yet splash more cash, though it will be seen by many as too little, too late.
The worrying thing for both Johnson and Sunak is the growing number of both Tory and Labour MPs demanding an economic impact assessment of their plans to date and to come. Any such assessment could lay bare how many jobs could have been saved by earlier extension of furlough or an earlier, shorter lockdown. Just as with Brexit no-deal plans, the post-Hammond Treasury is unlikely to provide its own estimates. ”What’s the damage?” is not a question it likes at the best of times, yet you can bet others (perhaps the OBR) will do the estimates for them.
The extra damage is political too. Starmer today went out of his way to tell the CBI that the UK “needs an active, pro-business government..and that’s what Labour under my leadership will offer”. As the leftwing backlash to that proved, he has some way to go to get his party there. But if Johnson’s infamous “fuck business” attitude is portrayed as referring not just to Brexit but also Covid economic casualties, that’s a Tory wound Starmer can rub salt into for years to come.