Anyone anxious about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis can sleep easy now. Boris Johnson has decided to “take back control” of the response. His Vote Leave advisers really do sound like a stuck record, playing their greatest hits over and over.
No surprise, then, that the cabinet’s new structure will replicate the one set up last year to handle Brexit. The daily C-19 group of Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock is being abolished. Its four sub-groups will be replaced by committees chaired by Johnson (strategy) and Gove(operations).
Never mind that the government has been aware of coronavirus for six months, and the country has been in a form of lockdown for almost three. Never mind that we’ve seen that movie about Johnson taking back control. In April, we were told the same as he returned from his life-threatening brush with the virus.
Simon Case, an impressive civil servant called back from a stint as Prince William’s private secretary to become Downing Street’s permanent secretary, is credited with the shake-up. Some Tory MPs hope the changes will dilute the influence of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most influential adviser. I’ll believe that when it happens. The prime minister’s decision to cling on to Cummings when he was accused of breaking lockdown rules showed his dependency on him. I doubt moving the No 10 furniture around will turn Cummings into a more collegiate figure; political leopards rarely change their spots.
The Cummings affair has dented public confidence in the PM’s handling of the pandemic. To restore it, Johnson will need to convince people he is acting in the national interest, as he persuaded them at the start of the crisis. Yet he has recently given the impression of putting the party interest first. It’s not only the “one rule for us” mantra suggested by his decision on Cummings. A pattern of behaviour is emerging. In easing the lockdown on Monday, Johnson bowed to pressure to Tory MPs worried about the economy and went back on his pledge to be guided by the coronavirus threat determined by his experts. The UK’s four chief medical officers ruled that we are still at level 4 (“transmission is high or rising exponentially”) but Johnson acted as if we had moved to level 3 (a general epidemic allowing a “gradual relaxing of restrictions and social distancing measures”).
It’s not the only time the government has shifted the goalposts; Hancock has been rebuked by the statistics watchdog for the way he achieved his headline-grabbing targets on testing.
The 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the UK from Monday was proposed by Cummings and Priti Patel, a fellow traveller on Johnson’s Vote Leave battlebus in 2016. It's straight out of Vote Leave’s playbook, and founded the public’s support for “strong borders”. Quarantine has not been recommended by the government’s scientific advisers.
Why did the government really scrap the virtual Commons and opt for a farcical voting system, forcing MPs to form a queue snaking through the Palace of Westminster? Wasting hours on 45-minute divisions will hardly help ministers “get a grip”.
It’s not about setting an example for people to go back to work, as ministers claim. Johnson is in no hurry to end cabinet meetings via Zoom, to the consternation of several ministers who feel out of the loop.
The Commons change is primarily about party management. Tory whips felt powerless during the digital parliament because their backbench troops could plot rebellions on WhatsApp groups and in the safety of their homes – away from the whips’ prying eyes. Despite Johnson’s majority of 80, serious revolts are brewing; many Tory MPs want to scrap Huawei’s role in 5G, speed up the lockdown easing and kill off Patel’s quarantine proposal.
So the Commons now has a shambolic system which means that self-isolating MPs can’t vote. Even some Tories who backed the government's decision believe it's mad. Electronic voting, used briefly during the virtual phase, should be brought back, permanently.
Johnson allies hoped that ending online contributions by MPs would bring more of them back to the chamber, so barracking Tories could throw Keir Starmer off his stride at prime minister’s questions. But that wheeze must wait; for now, only 50 MPs are allowed in under social distancing rules.
The Tories are right to be worried about Starmer. With perfect timing, the Labour leader has hardened his “constructive opposition” approach, urging Johnson to “get a grip” to prevent a second coronavirus wave, which Labour will lay at his door if it happens. That Johnson needs to shake up his operation vindicates Starmer’s attack.
The cross-party consensus on coronavirus was never going to last. You can’t keep party politics out of politics for long. With the Tories trying to protect their backs after making serious mistakes, and no longer “following the science”, Starmer is right to signal a return to something approaching normal political hostilities.