As public confidence in the government tumbles, the coronavirus truce is over | Opinion

In the early chapters of the crisis, Boris Johnson found that the deadly cloud of coronavirus came with a silver lining. He became more popular with the public than he had ever been. As normal politics was suspended, opposition parties declared a kind of truce and much of the nation instinctively rallied behind its government, the prime minister’s personal approval ratings surged.

As I remarked at the time, this was not entirely surprising and leaders in many other countries also enjoyed a popularity windfall from the crisis. Faced with a menace to life that is both frightening and invisible, there was a natural yearning to believe that we are led by competent people with a sound plan for getting us safely to the other side. That impulse was strong despite the evidence – or maybe even because of it – that we are actually in the hands of extremely fallible leaders flailing their way from one panic-infused day to the next.

This urge to “rally round the flag” suppressed much of the customary and essential cut and thrust of politics. Argument was muted and scrutiny shut down like so many other areas of human activity. Opposition politicians were cautious about criticising the government for fear of putting themselves on the wrong side of public sentiment. Conservative MPs with anxieties about Downing Street’s strategy largely bit their tongues and pulled their punches. The prevailing mood was one of giving ministers the benefit of the doubt. Just when it looked like this government-friendly atmosphere might be starting to dissipate, Mr Johnson received a further reprieve from criticism when he was struck down and subsequently hospitalised with the virus. The opposition and much of the media feared that it would look tasteless to kick the prime minister when he was ill. His personal approval ratings peaked shortly after his discharge from hospital. You will note the irony that the voters thought they liked him best as prime minister when he had been absent from the job.

Politically speaking, that was the “phoney war” period of the crisis. I use the past tense because I think we can safely declare that it is over. Since Mr Johnson’s widely derided national broadcast last Sunday, we have seen the resumption of something much more like traditional political combat. Opposition parties are becoming more muscular with ministers. The devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which initially stayed in lockstep with the UK government, have openly split with Downing Street to pursue divergent policies. Conservative MPs are becoming dramatically more critical of their government’s performance. The voters, who went into lockdown overwhelmingly of the view that it was the right thing to do, are divided about how we ought to emerge from it. In short, the consensus in the country is decaying and the truce between the government and its opponents is over.

One explanation is the lengthening charge list of failures in both planning for a pandemic and executing an adequate response when it broke out. There is now just too much evidence of egregious blundering to ignore, however generously you might make allowances for ministers struggling to combat a novel disease. Even generally loyal Conservatives have become deeply disturbed by the unenviably high toll of fatalities. “Do you know how many people have died in Hong Kong? Four! Just four!” exclaims one senior Tory. “People are waking up to the fact that Britain has done really woefully.”

It is now taken as given that there will be the mother of all public inquiries when this is finally over. Key players at the centre of events are writing private records of who did what when and who failed to do what when. One senior official tells me: “We are all keeping notes.”

Ministers have made it worse for themselves by setting targets, especially for supplies of essential equipment and testing and tracking of infection, that they then don’t fulfil. The Opinium poll that we publish today indicates a nine-point plunge in public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the epidemic. Its approval rating is now negative for the first time since the emergency began. Opinium also reports that Britons now think that only the US has handled the crisis worse than their own country.

The opposition has been emboldened to become more aggressive in prosecuting the government’s mistakes. Sir Keir Starmer has started to build a Labour narrative that avoidable deaths have occurred because the government has been sluggish and shambolic. Since he started to confront Mr Johnson at prime minister’s questions, the Labour leader has played to his strengths by interrogating the government’s performance in the forensic style of the successful barrister that he once was. This also exploits one of Mr Johnson’s greatest weaknesses. He isn’t good on detail. Faced with Mr Starmer’s deployment of damnatory statistics and embarrassing quotations from official documents, the prime minister flannels and blusters like a defendant with a threadbare alibi. Tory MPs complain to me that he hasn’t adjusted to the fact that Mr Starmer is a much more formidable inquisitor than his predecessor. Exasperated Tories also ask why Number 10 isn’t doing more to rehearse the boss for these encounters. Last week the Labour leader skewered the prime minister on the grim death toll in care homes. “It didn’t take the brains of an archbishop to work out that he would go on care homes,” remarks one senior Tory with personal experience of doing PMQs. “Why wasn’t Boris properly prepared for that?”

Boris Johnson gestures during prime minister's questions

‘Faced with Mr Starmer’s deployment of damnatory statistics and embarrassing quotations from official documents, the prime minister flannels and blusters like a defendant with a threadbare alibi.’ Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

We are also witnessing the revival of political argument on left/right lines. In the early period of the crisis, Labour found it hard to find an angle of attack when the Tories were responding to the accompanying economic emergency in a Labour way. Rishi Sunak is spending vast sums on government loans, salary subsidies and other state-expanding measures that would normally be associated with the left. After inviting the trade unions to help formulate the job retention scheme, the chancellor even referred to them as “social partners”.

A few weeks on, consensus is breaking down because there are very serious disputes about how quickly to ease out of lockdown. Most of the cabinet, and an even greater proportion of Tory MPs, are desperate for a rapid lifting of restrictions to revive the economy. Business largely agrees. Labour and its trade union allies are more wary and place the greatest emphasis on ensuring that workers are sufficiently protected.

This has sparked a classic clash between rival interests and ideologies. One of the starkest is between the government and teachers. The largest teaching union uses the word “reckless” to describe ministers’ plans for a partial reopening of schools in June. The education secretary bites back that the union is “scaremongering”. No cosy, consensus-seeking talk about “social partners” there.

Another sign that politics is returning to fractious business as usual is the rising tension within the Conservative party. The mask of unity that the government managed to maintain in the early weeks is fracturing. Cabinet ministers are letting it be known that they are furious about the lack of prior consultation by Downing Street before it makes key announcements. Tory MPs joined the ridicule of the prime minister’s confused and confusing broadcast. When it was over, one former cabinet minister turned to his wife and said: “What has he just said? What did that mean?” Two-thirds of the public agree that the government’s new rules are not clear. Another former cabinet minister says: “Boris has had his worst week of the crisis. He lost control of the messaging.” I’m told that a WhatsApp group used by about 250 Conservative MPs seethes with “sulphurous feelings” towards the cabinet.

This return to something resembling pre-crisis politics is not welcome to ministers. Like all governments, they’d prefer it if everyone shut up and did as they were told. After his wounding in parliament over the care homes epidemic, the prime minister complained to Mr Starmer: “The public expect us to work together.” That’s not in the job description of the leader of the opposition. He is supposed to be invigilating the government. The clue is in his title.

When political life was in a version of lockdown, Mr Johnson and his ministers were not being properly held to account. That absence of challenge did not make them a better government, but a worse one.

Much of life will remain disrupted for many people for a long time to come, but politics is returning to a kind of normality. Good thing too.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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