POLITICS
20/07/2021 22:56 BST | Updated 21/07/2021 07:27 BST

Will Muddy Messaging Spoil Boris Johnson’s End-Of-Term Send Off?

With backbenchers, as with Covid, remote control is often no control at all

Jeff OversPA
Dominic Cummings

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Just before a parliamentary recess, governments often embark on a Take Out The Trash Day. A raft of written ministerial statements will suddenly appear, stuffed full of announcements or data that ministers hope will get buried amid the pile of departmental black bin bags.

Thursday will still inevitably see that mass of information dropped on Westminster, but on Tuesday the government seemed intent on a different kind of trash talk: soiling its own public health policy with yet more muddied messaging.

In the apparent absence of a coherent pandemic plan for the third wave, both ministers and No.10 fuelled the suspicion that they are simply making things up as they go along. The day after ‘Freedom Day’ felt like free jazz day, with different bits of government riffing and soloing discordantly.

Business minister Paul Scully kicked things off by suggesting the public could make their own “informed decisions” about isolation after being pinged by the Covid app, adding it was ultimately “up to individuals and employers”. Within minutes, No.10 had a not so gentle slapdown, stressing it was “crucial” people isolated when told to by the app. 

It’s worth saying that Scully was absolutely correct that there is no legal requirement to obey the ping, and it’s only if you’re directly contacted by Test and Trace that you need to stay at home. But his natural attempt to stress the needs of business contrasted with Downing Street’s emphasis on the needs of the healthcare system.

Unfortunately, No10 added to the air of confusion by failing to come up with clarity on exactly which ‘critical workers’ would be allowed an exemption from isolation. There will not be any list of individual sectors that qualify, because “we’re not seeking to draw lines specifically around who or who is not exempt”, the PM’s spokesman said. That sounded less gov.uk than confused.com.

Worse still, it appears there will be a fantastically bureaucratic system whereby individual firms have to apply to individual Whitehall departments to seek exemptions for individual staff (though even that is unclear, as the spokesman later talked of “groups of individuals in specific sectors”). 

Unlike the clear definitions used last year for exemptions for overseas travel in the first wave, there is no definition at all. And in what appears to be a form of state planning beloved of Soviet East Germany, civil servants will use a ‘case by case’ approach, with no clue so far as to how long each application will take. No wonder business has said the plan is “unworkable”. 

No.10 is hoping to launch some fresh public health messaging later this week, but I don’t envy them. Instead of ‘Hands, Face, Space’, it seems we now have ‘Plans: Case By Case’.

The sense of chaos was underlined with new figures showing a million schoolchildren were sent home to isolate in England in the past week. The numbers of under-5s in nurseries affected is high too, with all the knock-on effect on working parents. Some 10% of parliament’s armed police officers have been pinged, highlighting the scale of this third wave caseload.

Another alarm bell ringing is the Guardian’s revelation that Border Force staff are so overwhelmed that they have been told they need no longer check negative test or passenger locator forms for airport arrivals from amber list countries. I suspect Keir Starmer may want to add that to his PMQs list on Wednesday. While Channel crossings of migrants alarms ministers, the Covid crossings at airports could end up much more concerning. 

In one early ‘Take Out The Trash’ move, the DWP slipped out its response to a consultation on statutory sick pay and was swiftly accused of reneging on its promise to reform it. Citing the pandemic, the department said now “was not the right time to introduce changes to the rate of SSP or its eligibility criteria”. With increasing numbers asked to isolate, fear of losing income makes this a very live issue again.

As if all that were not enough, there’s new Tory unease at the idea of U-turns on both Covid passports and jacking up national insurance to pay for social care (neither of which may get a Commons majority). They may well ask whether 2019 manifesto pledges being taken out with the trash too. 

Despite the backbench morale boost of an expected 3% pay rise for NHS staff, in some ways it’s probably a good thing Boris Johnson will not be physically present for his end-of-term session at the despatch box, or at the 1922 Committee. With Tory backbenchers, as with Covid, remote control is often no control at all. 

Still, Dominic Cummings could once again ride to the PM’s rescue, though this time not exactly as he intended. Tory MPs’ sheer loathing of the former adviser has gone off the scale after he told the BBC he discussed a ‘coup’ to oust Johnson within days of his 2019 election.

There could be no better way of getting backbenchers to back their leader.  But if the PM continues to upset his troops by breaking his word, they may even start to think Cummings has a point. The right messaging matters to your own party as well as the public.