If the Conservative Party had known last year that it was recruiting a leader to manage a pandemic, would it have chosen differently?
Jeremy Hunt’s credentials as a former health secretary could have counted more, but not much. Get on the Tardis and return to a tory hustings in 2019. Talk to the public about coronavirus and how managerial diligence is the most needed quality at a Prime Minister. The public is insensitive. “Project Fear,” they groan. They just want to know if Boris Johnson issues Brexit and wins a general election, which he does.
Back in May 2020, we find that some Conservative MPs are complaining about the government’s response to the coronaviruses. The message is confusing, the grip is weak. These are just waves of dissent and Johnson will have to be far more wrong before his party is seriously disappointed. But ripples on the surface indicate deeper fault lines.
The tension is between the conservatives who are eager to get the country out of quarantine, citing the cost of putting the economy on hold, and those who fear that the loosening of the closure will give the virus new impetus to kill.
It’s a difference in ideology and temperament. Lockout skeptics are wary of anything that involves the state paying people’s wages or telling them how to behave. They do not like quarantine in the same way that they do not like the Health and Safety Executive or the European Union. They see bailouts and vacations as sleepwalkers to socialism.
Johnson does not want to upset MPs who share this opinion, in part because his own instincts lean that way. Furthermore, choosing fights with conservative law is a dangerous undertaking for party leaders. Buying their loyalty with a wacky policy is the usual alternative. But Johnson got Covid-19 and he knows it can’t be dealt with on an entrepreneurial basis alone. He also received advice from scientists that the virus is too widespread to allow unregulated activity.
The confusion over the government’s nebulous new message “Stay alert” earlier this week stems from a clash between clinical facts and a political demand for new facts when those that exist do not fit a certain ideological bias. Hence the strange contortion of England – and only of England – which changes the rules, while keeping them practically the same. Johnson wants to lean out of his forties, but with his feet planted in the lock area.
Some Conservatives who want their leader to take a bolder leap blame his disappointing stay in intensive care. There is a feeling that this cautious prime minister, out of his forties out of respect for doctors, is not the daredevil daredevil they hired last year. It’s not the spirit of the Boris brand that was advertised so often in the Daily Telegraph. They whisper that he lost his bottle.
It is true that Johnson’s manner is changed and that serious illnesses leave psychological scars. But there is a simple political equation being studied in Downing Street. Johnson’s reputation at the start of the crisis was protected by just public recognition that the disease was to blame for killing people, not by the politicians who were trying to stop the disease. This could change in a second peak where infections can be linked to a premature relaxation of quarantine restrictions.
Keir Starmer’s constructive opposition offering is calibrated to match public aversion to free scoring in the event of a crisis. Hostility can easily be increased if the national mood deteriorates.
Senior Tories say Johnson is cautiously respectful of Starmer, noting the safe start he made, but much more troubled by Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish Prime Minister has institutional powers to undermine the authority of a Conservative Prime Minister whose charisma loses its magnetism north of Berwick.
Most of Westminster’s eyes are focused on day-to-day politics, but conservative strategists have not forgotten next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections and the demolition ball of another hovering independence referendum. still on Downing Street.
Anything that can be called arrogance and complacency is toxic to Johnson, especially when he has a class component. It does not sound good when the rules are changed in an unbalanced way so that retired bankers can access the golf course, while low-wage workers have to return to precarious jobs through the Covid-19 miasma.
Opposition MPs are aware of this asymmetry, as are conservatives in the “red wall” constituencies of the Midlands, North England and Wales – workers’ bastions until last December.
Johnson would not be in power without these seats and he won them by overcoming a deep-rooted anti-conservative culture. The grip of work has weakened for a generation, but it has been shattered by the combination of Brexit and Johnson’s unique skill, attracting parts of the electorate who would not otherwise have considered supporting a candidate conservative.
He managed it during two elections for the mayor of London and, while the formula which influenced the liberal metropolis in the 2000s is different from that which worked in Brexitland, the magic ingredient – the “Boris” touch – is the same. It is notable how quickly the effect wore off in London after Johnson was no longer the candidate.
These Boris party voters are not conservatives in the traditional sense of the word. Euroscepticism aside, they have little in common with the market-obsessed little Thatcherite cultists who now seem to define English freedom as the inalienable right to catch and spread deadly disease. It is a niche position when most of the country simply wants rules that make sense and a government that offers a solid financial safety net.
The Prime Minister has tied himself to a knot with one hand trying to take the dictation of science, while with the other he is feeding an insatiable ideological beast that does not digest the evidence. The contradiction is intrinsic to the whole project. Last year, Johnson’s call to the Conservative party was that it could be appreciated by people who hate the Conservatives. It solved one problem by creating another: keeping the support of people who had never voted Conservative before in their lives could mean doing things to government that longtime Conservatives would never do.
This tension was buried by the election results and Brexit, but the pandemic brought it to the surface. Coping with coronavirus is an expensive, intrusive, and large-scale endeavor. Little about the actions needed to contain a pandemic and support the economy through national recovery fit the “Boris” brand that Conservative MPs thought they would get last year. Their frustration will grow. He will try to satisfy them without doing exactly what they want, which is a proven formula for party division, dysfunctional government and failure at every stage of the Covid-19 crisis.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist