The decision to significantly ease lockdown from early July marks a new chapter when it comes to the government’s approach to coronavirus. After a miserable few months, the hope in Downing Street is that with the number of confirmed new cases down to pre-lockdown levels, the government can return some form of normality – and get back to delivering its election manifesto promises.
It was this message that Dominic Cummings was keen to get across in his meeting with special advisers on Monday night. Boris Johnson’s senior aide acknowledged that recent events had made this difficult. First, Brexit, which dominated Boris Johnson’s first few months in office. Second, a global pandemic that arrived on these shores on the day the UK left the EU. He said that now was the time to get back to delivering on their promises – pointing to pledges for new hospitals and nurses.
Next week, the Prime Minister will give a speech aimed at hammering this point home. With the working title Build, Build, Build, Johnson will use the set piece event to explain how he hopes to combine the UK’s coronavirus recovery with his ‘levelling-up’ agenda. A team has been working on it – separate to those focussed on the latest stage of lockdown easing. He is expected to deliver it away from Downing Street – in a sign the PM is keen to get out and about. Johnson is expected to talk about the ways he wants to improve the country in the wake of coronavirus through policy on the environment, infrastructure and public services. A key part of this will involve relaxing planning laws and cutting red tape.
Old pledges to build infrastructure in the form of hospitals, schools and railways will be revisited. He will rededicate himself to the levelling-up agenda – his promise to the so-called red wall seats the Tories won from Labour, many of which have been among the worst affected by coronavirus. Those privy to the plans suggest it will be clear from his pledges that there will be no return to austerity as a response to the costs of lockdown.
There have been a lot of complaints from Tory MPs during lockdown – with frustration at the slow pace of easing as well as what MPs perceive to be a heavily centralised No. 10 operation that pays little attention to the parliamentary party. There are even some MPs who have begun to ask whether Johnson is really up to the job for the full term.
While a full on No. 10 charm offensive is unlikely, there are signs that party management is on No. 10’s mind. There have been rumours of a big summer reshuffle but in Downing Street the idea is met with caution. There’s a sense that the last reshuffle lost them goodwill among those who were either moved out or missed promotion. The Prime Minister is said to be reluctant to go through that process again anytime soon. With DfiD folding into the Foreign Office, what’s more likely is a mini reshuffle in the autumn.
There’s optimism that Johnson will be able to change the mood music on his premiership – ultimately with a majority of 80 and several years left in power, circumstances remain on his side. But this all rests on controlling coronavirus, which remains a great unknown.