It’s hard to break into the global top ten of insufferably arrogant political acts. You need to do something really memorable — something to match Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection, assembled while her husband presided over an increasingly impoverished country. Or the Soviet regime’s creation of special reserved ‘ZiL lanes’ in Moscow to speed government high-ups through the rush hour traffic.
But Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak may well have just managed it. The pair decided to use a ‘pilot scheme’ to exempt themselves from a requirement to self-isolate after coming into close contact with a Covid carrier (the health secretary). Fortunately, someone persuaded them of the folly of that approach and so they have U-turned, but the very fact that they ever considered it an appropriate step should set alarm bells ringing across the Tory high command.
At the very moment that millions of us are either living in dread of getting pinged or have just had it happen — and therefore dutifully disrupted our own lives by isolating — news came of the special get-out clause for the PM and Chancellor.
The two men confirmed that they would be taking part in a Whitehall scheme — which is meant to select participants at random, ho-ho — that would allow them to go on a regime of daily tests instead.
So strings were to be pulled to allow them to dodge the impact of their own widely criticised and draconian policies, requiring isolation of those who don’t live on Downing Street as if the benefits of mass vaccination had never been bestowed. And they planned to sidestep the rule just as the unsustainability of the policy was being demonstrated by the mass absences it is causing in many workplaces.
All this must bring an unfamiliar feeling of being ahead of the curve to Labour leader Keir Starmer. A couple of weeks back at PMQs he minted a soundbite that actually landed quite well. He told Mr Johnson that the trouble with the Tories was that they imposed ‘one rule for them and another rule for everybody else’.
The examples he cited back then were the escapades of Dominic Cummings at Barnard Castle; Robert Jenrick assisting the planning application of a Tory donor; Priti Patel keeping her job after being found to have broken the ministerial code; and the PM initially backing Matt Hancock despite the latter admitting breaking Covid distancing rules.
‘There’s a pattern here,’ noted Starmer. ‘Every time it’s the same old story,’ he added, before gesturing towards the PM as he delivered his key soundbite: ‘While the British people are doing everything asked of them, it’s one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.’
When the final PMQs before the Commons summer recess takes place on Wednesday, Johnson should expect a merciless reprise that will place Starmer on the side of all but the most blinkered Tory loyalists (and there aren’t many of them these days).
Not only has Johnson just done his political profile all kinds of damage, but he has also blown a hole in the government’s strategy for coping with the new Covid wave — flawed as it is.
Surely it should have been obvious to ministers that the spectacle of them side-stepping unreasonable rules would lead to a further upsurge in the number of people deleting the Test and Trace app — and that this would happen at the exact moment when laws imposing social distancing, mask-wearing and the like were falling away?
Dutifully following the requirements of the Test and Trace regime has been turned into a mug’s game, despite the U-turn. Monday will therefore not now bring a slowly-but-surely approach to restoring normal life, as advised by the likes of Chris Whitty, but a big bang. Many of us will be glad about that, figuring we may as well get the third wave over with quickly and in the summer when the NHS is more able to cope.
But the spectacle of the PM having displayed zero understanding of his obligation to lead by example will live long in the memory.
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