Tories in the time of Coronavirus
Who would have thought until a few weeks ago that Boris Johnson’s success over the coming year would be judged on anything other than his management of the final stage of Brexit? That issue – together with whether he’ll turn out overall to be just the latest in a long line of soft-left Tory prime ministers – will return. But for the moment, Johnson’s reputation stands or falls on how he handles the gravest challenge of our time. Disappointingly for those like me who’ve long seen him as the Tories’ best hope, his performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Few governments have escaped criticism for their response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the UK’s handling of the crisis has been especially controversial and not just among the usual Boris-bashers. High-profile conservative (apart from when it comes to climate change) media commentator Piers Morgan has strongly attacked the government response for being too slow and weak, as has former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt, criticisms backed by many scientists.
When the first cases appeared in the UK on 31 January, the government didn’t support the social distancing measures adopted by other countries and, uniquely, planned to accept a wave of infections, aimed at developing ‘herd immunity’. The government maintained this approach for six weeks while infections and deaths increased steadily. There was no attempt to stop even large events like the Cheltenham races, attended by 60,000 people. Johnson said stopping mass gatherings wouldn’t help reduce the spread of infections, while the Sunday Times claims that the private message of his senior advisor Dominic Cummings was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.
The government’s abrupt U-turn on 16 March came after its scientific advisors concluded the light-touch ‘mitigation’ strategy was flawed. During such times of crisis governments of course have to rely on scientific advice. But UK policy running for six weeks on what turned out to be incorrect advice is scandalous. The fact that the scientific advisors’ assessment was at such variance with that in other countries should have prompted much scepticism and questioning. If it turns out that the government’s initial approach caused more deaths than would have been the case under a robust early response, Johnson’s reputation will take a major battering.
More positively for Johnson, Brexit is no longer a significant issue dividing the country. The only question is whether Britain finally leaves the EU at the end of this year with a free- trade deal. That would require the EU to back down on its absurd insistence that the condition for a deal is Britain aligning its standards and regulations with its own and having the EU’s court adjudicate on any disputes – conditions firmly rejected by Johnson and which haven’t applied to the EU’s free-trade deals with Japan, Canada or Korea. Brussels is also insisting on continued fishing access to British waters. If the EU remains obstinate and a free-trade deal proves elusive, few except hard-core Remainers would blame Johnson.
After Johnson’s electoral victory, hopes have been high among conservatives that he would reverse the Left’s dominance of so much British life, especially the civil service, the police and the BBC. The signs so far are mixed. On the positive side, Johnson has defended Home Secretary Priti Patel, the target of a concerted campaign by the civil service and the Left because she’s a conservative who’s been pushing the famously obstinate and incompetent Home Office to implement policies in tune with what most voters want. She wants to bring down immigration numbers – to the extent that Johnson’s left-liberal views on immigration allow – and to shift the police away from their PC ways, seen again recently when they co-operated with Extinction Rebellion extremists in shutting down the centre of Cambridge and stood by while they vandalised the grounds of Trinity College.
But in other areas, Johnson makes some odd decisions. His new government line-up included James Brokenshire, who as a minister last year capitulated to the left in sacking Sir Roger Scruton from his official position – while he sacked Esther McVey, a rare Northern Tory, and left out conservative big beasts like Iain Duncan-Smith. Meanwhile, his government pursues radical, disruptive measures to achieve a carbon-neutral UK by 2050 while 65 per cent of Conservatives, according to one poll, think there’s no ‘climate emergency’. The recent decision that inspectors will check whether firewood in people’s homes is dry enough caused intense widespread irritation.
Approaching ten years of Conservative government, Britain today has such distinctly non-conservative features as a chill in relations with the US because it’s allowing the Chinese into its 5G rollout, Europe’s only coast guard which operates as a ferry service for illegal immigrants from another European country and police prioritising investigation of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ over real crimes like burglaries. The BBC’s head of drama admits his aim is to represent today’s multiracial Britain in historical productions. Schools organise ‘Drag Queen Story Times’ for five-year-olds.
Defeating the virus and getting Brexit completed will preoccupy Johnson for the next year. But in time he’ll also be judged on his preparedness to address the drift to PC lunacy in so many aspects of British life. For the moment, it seems a safe bet that Margaret Thatcher will continue to be judged as the last real Tory prime minister.
Mark Higgie is the Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent
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