23 December 2022
A ‘New Boris’?
I preferred the old one.
By Lynda Goetz
Our local MP ended his Christmas message with the following words: “We cannot pretend that the last couple of months have gone smoothly for the Government. After recent events, I expect the Government to pull its Christmas socks up, and that in the New Year, we will see a new Boris!”
This disappointment in our Prime Minister is rather more widespread than he can possibly feel comfortable with, and those who have rushed to support him have, on the whole, been given short shrift (as in the case of Nadine Dorries and the WhatsApp group). This feeling of dismay is not limited to MPs, of course. It is also widespread amongst the voters in general and amongst former staunch Tory supporters. The despairing letters to the Daily Telegraph’s letter page seem to increase by the day. What has gone so wrong for the man who bounced to an 80-strong majority just two years ago?
Much of the problem can be attributed to the pandemic, which has frustrated attempts to ‘get Brexit done’ properly, has cost the country a great deal of money and has divided the populace into different camps. In the Midlands and Northern constituencies which have been tagged as the ‘Red Wall’ (former traditionally Labour-voting) seats, much of the antagonism has derived from the failure to implement the ‘levelling-up’ policies which were promised. Elsewhere, the voters seem to be divided into those who want the government to apply ever more stringent regulations to give them ‘certainty’ and keep them and the NHS ‘safe’ and those who are urging the Government to take a much more rounded view of the crisis and to look beyond Covid statistics and modelling at the more general harm being down by lockdowns and other measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19.
It was this latter position which drove the 100 rebel backbench MPs to vote against the government last week. The North Shropshire by-election result (discussed in depth by JR Wilson elsewhere in this week’s issue) appeared to be a protest delivered by grass roots Conservatives to remind Boris and his Government that they cannot be taken for granted and to administer a rap over the knuckles for any number of failings: illiberal and unconservative policies, not just around Covid but other issues too; an apparent arrogance within a Government which seems to see itself as above the legislation it has been heaping on the rest of the population; and a general disregard for the rule of democracy. Perhaps too a concern for a future which is looking increasingly bleak as inflation rises, our young people’s education is seriously disrupted, mental health issues abound and concern increases about climate change and the role of technology in our lives.
This is all a lot to contend with and it is hard to point to any country in the world which has dealt with the pandemic in a way to win unqualified approval. Indeed, what is evident is that most countries have taken very similarly restrictive measures (either earlier or later) to deal with a virus, which, however it might have been unleashed, has caused in many cases serious illness, deaths and extreme pressures on health services of all designs and then indirectly on individuals in other ways, whether economically or in terms of other physical and mental health issues. Initially, this engendered something of a siege mentality and the feeling that we all needed to pull together. However, as time has gone on and the amazing creation of vaccines, together with, in the case of countries like ours, an impressive roll-out programme, has largely removed the threat of death and serious illness, as well as the possibility of ‘overwhelming’ the NHS or other health services, there has been increasing tension around the imposition of restrictions.
Why, so many are asking, are we being told to isolate, to take more and more tests, when most of us have answered the call to be ‘jabbed’? Governments seem to be prepared to take fewer and fewer risks even when those risks are diminished. Are we to live in fear of lockdowns forever? Are we going to be subjected to this risk-averse behaviour each time a new variant emerges (as they will) and if so, at what cost to living, as opposed to existing? The economy as a whole may have recovered better than was expected after things opened up again in the summer, but for many individuals the outcome has not been so positive. The hospitality industry, the arts world and the high street have all suffered. For some, the last two years have meant the end of their businesses. They have been left high and dry, not through any fault of their own but by the collective chaos through which we are all living. As we now have the vaccines, it is surely time for any question of lockdowns to be put aside for good?
Many of the problems currently being experienced are due to the isolation policies, which can see perfectly healthy individuals incarcerated at home and unable to work. For some, assuming they are still being paid, this may feel like a well-deserved rest, but the more conscientious are well aware of the pressure this puts on others in their workplace, obliged to take on extra burdens to cover for absent colleagues. The recent announcement of a reduction in the isolation period from 10 to 7 days is clearly a move in the right direction. Why, though, are these measures necessary if, for most of us who are vaccinated, the outcome of catching Covid will be like catching a bad cold?
The government repeatedly say they are acting ‘on the science’ and are reliant on ‘the data’, but which science and what data? Professor Neil Fergusson of Imperial College, whose group appears to be very powerful in influencing SAGE pronouncements, said last week that his modelling showed there could be 5,000 deaths a day from omicron. Another SAGE ‘scenario’ suggested 6,000! Six thousand! How on earth do they arrive at a figure like that unless so many factors in play are being ignored? It turns out that at least one vital fact was ignored; an assumption was made that omicron would be as deadly as delta.
The South African professor who discovered omicron has called it a variant with ‘mild’ symptoms. The European reaction to this has been effectively to ignore their ‘live world’ experience and to treat South African scientists as if their findings are not worth considering. True, south Africa has a much younger population than we do and it is their summer, but most of our ‘oldies’ and most vulnerable are already triple vaccinated. Why then are we panicking? Why are we allowing the doom-monger scientists so much influence? Why are those scientists who do not take these extreme positions being given little or no say?
A Twitter exchange reported by The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson may shed some light on this. Rather than being ‘led by the science’, it might be the case that ministers are ‘leading the science’. The Twitter exchange in question between Nelson and Professor Medley highlighted the hitherto probably unappreciated fact that, at least according to Professor Medley, scientists model ‘what we are asked to model’. This throws back to politicians the accountability for those models and, as Fraser Nelson concludes “this raises serious questions not just about Sage but about the quality of the advice used to make UK lockdown decisions”.
For now, Boris, on account possibly of a lot of pushback from his cabinet, has avoided making any more draconian regulations which will affect Christmas. If he insists on imposing further regulations in the new year, based on modelling rather than ‘real world’ data, then further revolts and rebellions amongst both back-benchers and cabinet seem likely. If he refrains, then perhaps, as Charles Moore believes, he may be able to bounce back yet again from the brink, but a ‘new Boris’? I think not. We already have the new Boris, perhaps what we need back is the old Boris, the journalist who didn’t believe in high taxes or over-regulation. It turns out that whilst real-world experience prior to entering politics may be helpful, journalistic experience may not be the right sort of experience. Pontificating on the right way to do things may just be a little easier than being the person who has to keep MPs and electorate onside and get them done.