The Nation’s State
Not even six months ago, Boris Johnson swept back to Downing Street with the biggest majority of any Prime Minister since Blair. His senior aides talked of the prospect of ten years in power.
At the end of 2019, they had a mandate to settle Brexit, huge sway over a grateful Parliamentary party, and Coronavirus was only starting to be reported as a pneumonia outbreak in Eastern China.
That now feels like another age. Lexington's Senior Counsel Paul Harrison examines how much of the political fundamentals have actually changed since then, and what lessons can we draw from 2020 so far.
First, perceptions of the government have altered a good deal during that time. To begin with, the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak rightly won plaudits for its surefootedness. There was overwhelming support for lockdown on public health grounds underpinned by clear and simple messaging, the institution of daily press conferences, and a more visible PM inclined to defer to ‘the science’. But a lot can change in a short time. We’ve heard Dominic Cummings’ account – nearly 4 million people watched his press conference even on a sunny bank holiday Monday – but the fallout from those events has hit attitudes to the government and its competence hard. What no-one knows is whether that is permanent.
Second, much as Downing Street will be conscious of the polling, they also know that this next phase of the Coronavirus response was always going to be much the tougher in both communications and policy terms. Shifting away from an entirely straightforward message – stay at home if you possibly can – against the backdrop of real public concern is incredibly hard. Things were always going to go wrong. And we shouldn’t conflate the fallout from Dominic Cummings’ stay in County Durham unduly with what would be virtually impossible even with a fair wind.
Third, and again despite all of that fallout, Dominic Cummings – and the broader structure around the PM – is here to stay. As soon as the PM publicly declared himself ‘assured’ that his adviser had acted ‘responsibly and legally’, the PR value in removing him plummeted. Even No 10 civil servants concede that a power vacuum detrimental to government business would open up if he resigned. But with the next election not until 2024, it is clear that the PM thinks this isn’t something voters will be motivated by in the longer term – and we’ll only find out if he is right in the years to come.
Fourth, the economy and jobs occupy more minds at the Centre than even a month ago – and the views of backbench MPs echo that. As one senior HMT aide said recently ‘how we frame the economic recovery in a good way’ is the question everyone is trying to answer – and the focus is already shifting to a reconstituted Pre-Budget Report in July. There’s no appetite for fiscal consolidation during this Parliament – no austerity mark II – but higher taxes on business and more sustained borrowing are both likely. And clearly Brexit is returning decisively to the news agenda, which will sharpen those decisions.
Fifth, this is an administration that differs from its predecessors in attitudes to the media. They are, simply put, more aggressive and willing to pick fights with particular programmes and what they deem ‘campaigning newspapers’. That is founded in part on the SpAds’ view of the Lobby system itself.
Sixth, the Tory party – and parts of the Cabinet – is getting restive at being excluded from many of the big decisions. Maybe – just maybe – an 80 seat majority ain’t what it once was. His advisers concede the PM is now increasingly conscious of the mood on the backbenches.
The number of new-intake MPs who were prepared to speak out against Dom Cummings publicly, and the pressure on No 10 to drop what are seen as economically damaging policies like 14-day quarantine, is striking if not yet telling. An experienced former Minister always says Tory MPs have two – and he would stress only two – settings. Panic and complacency. At the moment it seems like they veer more to the former than the latter. Splits in the party are likely to be exacerbated by the economic path ahead – because there is a big spectrum of opinion on the backbenches from those who favour big state solutions to those who advocate cutting taxes and regulation as the way forward.
Finally, what about Labour? There’s no doubt Keir Starmer has made a promising start. His lawyerly style is particularly effective against the PM in the Commons – you could argue that he actually benefits from an emptier and less rowdy chamber at PMQs.
The caveat – and it’s a big one – is that a return to grown-up politics and a more astute type of opposition doesn’t yet lessen the mountain that Labour has to climb at the next election.
So the political landscape looks significantly different from six months ago. We shouldn’t underestimate the toll – personal, physical and professional – those months have taken on those at the very top. But, for now at least, the fundamentals haven’t shifted much – the PM still has a decent majority in the Commons and broad public support for the measures he is implementing. How much that changes, and how much a renewed Labour party can capitalise on the inevitable difficulties, is the central question of the next six months.
Paul Harrison is Senior Counsel at Lexington and former Downing Street Press Secretary.