The best place to start is with the opinion polls. Five recent ones record the Conservative rating as follows: 50 per cent, 50 per cent, 51 per cent, 48 per cent and 46 per cent. These are unprecedented scores for a governing party, in their durability if not their level, and neither Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major nor, yes, even the great election winner herself, Margaret Thatcher, ever had anything like them.
Our columnist James Frayne may be right in thinking that they could collapse overnight. ConservativeHome has wondered whether they would survive mid-June, roughly an economic quarter since this great contraction set in.
But for the time being, the Prime Minister has polling capital as well as his emphatic majority in the bank, together with his achievement of Brexit, and his own hospitalisation with Coronavirus, which has done nothing to dent his standing.
That is the vantage from which to view his critics on the left and the right, about whom we shall be brief.
The Left is lining up behind the shutdown. And no wonder. Capitalism has ground to a halt. The taxpayer pays workers not to work. The state has powers unknown even in wartime. Laura Pidcock is tweeting #KeepTheLockdown. No surprise there.
To his critics on the Right, this is a moral affront – with Johnson delivering the socialism from which his election triumph was believed to have rescued us. Forget the Swedish statistics, Ferguson-critical academics and economic rationalism. The opposition to Johnson from the Right is driven less by these than by outrage – and frustration that the lockdown-backing, NHS-applauding Brits are not the sturdy, Kiplingesque, liberty-loving individualists that some believed them to be.
But no wonder that, with poll ratings like the Prime Minister’s, some in Downing Street believe that, up to a point, they can ignore not only the first group but also the second.
They are buttressed by the marginality of the Twitter bubble – burst three times in the past five years: by David Cameron’s 2015 election win, five years ago yesterday; by the EU referendum result, and by Johnson’s smashing win in December. Who cares about the Chant of North London’s Ever-Circling Skeletal Family?
And further supported by the decline of Fleet Street. The Daily Telegraph splashes Keir Starmer on its front page today. The paper remains the choice of Tory activists and Conservative voters – quite a lot of them, anyway. Twenty-five years ago, its gesture would have rattled Downing Street to its core.
Not now. Newspapers are a declining force. Their sales and advertising revenue are taking a terrible hit: beneath the elegant anti-lockdown opeds of their columnists lies a primal fear of being squeezed out of business. Johnson will worry far less about them than about the voters – confident in the calculation that, when push comes to shove, the Tory press will rally round. And its ageing readers are unlikely to march for a higher R-value any time soon.
So it is that he is set to make his broadcast on Sunday – at exactly the time but not with the content that ConservativeHome expected a month ago. In a nutshell, the easing-off will be less extensive that we then expected. The details are vague (and in some cases unsettled), but the outline is clear: Johnson will offer a menu without prices – that’s to say, a lockdown easing programme with no definite timetable.
Why? How has institutional caution of the Department of Health won out against the bigger beast of the Treasury? The answer lies in the logic of putting the NHS at the core of the Government’s strategy. “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives,” its slogan reads. Whatever it may be changed to next week, it certainly won’t read as follows: “Stay Home. Protect Care Homes. Save Lives.”
For the appalling truth is that care homes are many, scattered throughout our economic and social landscape, unmonitored by journalists and, above all, places where the patients are usually expected, sooner or later, to die. No-one ever made the equivalent of Casualty about a care home.
Hospitals are fewer, easier for TV cameras to get to, host more visitors at once, and above all are expected to return most of their patients to life outside. If the NHS is our national religion, the hospitals are its cathedrals. No Government would survive Italian-style pictures, and reports of patients dying in corridors or being turned away from A & E – sacrilege in these holy-of-holies. Those polls would turn, Conservative MPs would panic, and Johnson would be out on his ear.
There is much more to the Government clinging to the countours of the lockdown than that. But there is a real fear that a sudden lockdown end would be followed by rising virus rates, the NHS being unable to cope and the economy freezing anyway – as workers vote with their feet to stay at home. The Prime Minister would be left with nothing: a sunk NHS, a stalled economy, a bust strategy and, inevitably, talk of a leadership challenge.
Put like that, and one begins to see why Johnson is more concerned about Starmer, trailing him like a submarine; by Nicola Sturgeon and, above all, by his backbenches than by whatever Fleet Street or, frankly, online operations like this site may be saying.
The dog that isn’t barking is Conservative MPs. Some are very unhappy with lockdown: Andrew Gimson sketched Graham Brady, Steve Baker and Charles Walker earlier this week. And two ring-rounds by ConHome – see here and here – have found some worried MPs. But with the polls as they are, Tory MPs aren’t feeling constituency pressure. So nor is the Prime Minister, especially since, as John Redwood suggested on this site this week, a Virtual Parliament takes the sting out of scrutiny, opposition and accountability.
If we sound unquestioningly supportive of Johnson’s strategy, we don’t mean to be. Like most people, we think the time for shredding the Government’s mistakes will be later, now now; and the venue will be the inevitable inquiry, not a media pack shrieking dodgy statistics.
But for all their unreliability, it can surely be said that Britain won’t emerge, when the dust eventually clears, as a world leader in tackling the Coronavirus. If there have been tactical successes (such as getting a testing industry up and running from scratch), there have been strategic failures – not least, settling on the present South Korean-style path very late.
Frankly, we are long past the stage at which the Prime Minister can simply set out his menu without prices and expect orders to be made without question. Downing Street is brilliantly set up for campaigning but less well for governing. This is not with some exceptions – Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, the perservering Dom Raab, and a few others – a first-rate Cabinet. (Though our panel is right in thinking there is no first-rate replacement team waiting on the backbenches.)
Johnson will need to answer some hard questions next week, and we will try to ask some of them tomorrow. The polls are the right place to start thinking about the Government’s position. But they are not the right one at which to end.