Empty Christmas market. Graphic: Pixabay/Markus Distelrath Empty Christmas market. Graphic: Pixabay/Markus Distelrath

Alex Snowdon on the black hole of Johnson’s governmental crisis 

An earlier prime minister, Harold Wilson, once remarked that a week is a long time in politics. Boris Johnson seems determined to prove the adage true. He ended the week with political positions diametrically opposed to those which he had adopted – with bullish certainty – earlier the same week.

Johnson’s U-turn on coronavirus rules is in one sense extraordinary: as recently as Wednesday, he was mocking Keir Starmer for suggesting that tighter Christmas restrictions were required. Around 72 hours later he was informing the nation that two thirds of England’s population will be able to mix outside their own household only on Christmas Day, while the other third can’t even do that.

In another sense, however, it is dismally ordinary. This year we have become accustomed to government U-turns like never before. 

Above all, there have been the twists and turns on how to handle the pandemic: the government dogmatically adopts a particular position, only to subsequently reverse it because reality imposes itself. There have been further U-turns on everything from August’s exam grading controversy to the issue of feeding children in poverty during the school holidays.

It is hard to imagine how the pandemic could have been handled more badly. There was the delayed imposition of lockdown in March, despite us having the benefit of being able to observe how the virus was spreading exponentially – and what a dreadful impact it was having – in Italy and Spain. Johnson, it subsequently emerged, had been getting extremely grave forecasts from experts for some weeks before he finally took serious action.

Lockdown worked. The numbers of infections, hospital admissions and deaths were driven down. But the lifting of many of the restrictions was rushed in late spring and early summer, mainly for reasons of narrow, short-term economic interest.

From September onwards, it became brutally apparent that the virus had not been suppressed enough. It began to surge again. We then had – following March’s lockdown delay and the premature lifting of restrictions – a third set of disastrous mistakes in the autumn.

It didn’t help that the government had failed to transform test-and-trace capacity in the speedy and dramatic way required during the earlier lockdown period. These errors were compounded by an obstinate unwillingness to re-impose lockdown when a resurgence of the virus came. Advice from Sage, the official scientific advisory body, to have a circuit breaker (or hard lockdown) for two weeks was ignored in late September.

When a ‘lockdown’ began in early November, it was too little, too late. The decision to keep schools fully open looked like a triumph of ideological dogma over reality.

As more data on infection rates among different age groups emerged, it became unarguable that schools were a vital means of sustaining virus transmission. Yet the government’s position on schools was so fixed and inflexible that it threatened legal action against any head teachers or local authorities contemplating closing schools in the last week of term, even in areas with surging infection rates.

We are struggling with tens of thousands of daily infections, over 18,000 patients currently in hospital with coronavirus, and several hundred deaths a day. The vaccine is a very promising development, but full roll-out is a slow process.

People are experiencing severe dislocation to their lives and are furious at the incompetence and incoherence revealed by Saturday’s press conference. They are weary after nine months of ever-changing restrictions and guidance, with little sense that the sacrifices have actually paid off in the sense of sustained suppression of the virus.

Not only that but huge damage has been done to jobs and livelihoods, as those policy decisions motivated by a need to ‘revive the economy’ have generally turned out to be false economies.

A changing political landscape

But where does all this leave the prime minister and his government? We have just passed the first anniversary of the Tory general election, enabled by Johnson becoming Tory leader and his ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra. The whopping 45% of the popular vote, leading to a comfortable Commons majority, made Johnson seem popular, his government look strong and the Tories appear invincible.

By April, when Keir Starmer became Labour leader amidst a national emergency, the Tory polling lead had grown still further and Johnson (helped by a unifying sense of national crisis) was riding higher than ever in approval ratings.

That now feels like another world. Johnson’s personal approval ratings have plummeted, he has been forced to sack his lieutenant Dominic Cummings, and the gap between Labour and the Tories has closed. The devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have increasingly gone their own way, while opposition from local government has grown enormously.

There is a good chance that this will be Johnson’s last Christmas in Downing Street – a prediction that almost nobody would have made in the early days of the pandemic. He has turned out to be a liability and he struggles more than ever to hold the Tory ranks together, with noisy dissent on the back benches. There is, however, no simple solution for the Tories – and the economic fallout from this year’s turmoil will be severe and long-lasting.

The decline in fortunes for both Johnson and his party is no mystery considering how near-consistently disastrous the handling of the pandemic has been (I say ‘near-consistently’ because March’s imposition of lockdown, though belated, was very much the right decision – and also, interestingly, a popular one). If there is anything a little puzzling it is perhaps why the decline hasn’t been even greater.

A big part of the explanation is the failure of Starmer-led Labour, at crucial moments, to challenge the Tory narrative. There have been disagreements with the Tories, but typically on minor or secondary matters – while the broad framework has remained unchallenged.

Even now, Labour’s front bench is determined to avoid dissenting from Tory policy on the question of school arrangements. In the summer, Starmer aggressively insisted that schools must re-open fully in September ‘no ifs, no buts’. This utterly unconditional support left Labour with nowhere to go when infection rates subsequently soared.

The removal of left-winger Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary had been a signal of Starmer’s commitment to tailing the Tories. He hasn’t wavered since.

It would not be difficult for Labour to now declare support for Scotland’s approach, which is to avoid opening schools fully until at least 18 January. Largely online learning for the first two weeks of term makes sense in England’s secondary schools, as it does in Scotland, yet Labour has explicitly spurned the National Education Union’s call for this to happen.

The Labour leadership’s priority lately has been smashing the party’s own left wing. The ongoing – and worsening – witch hunt of socialists is the corollary of Starmer’s political shift rightwards. We began 2020 with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, yet that feels very distant now. The Labour Right has displayed an unforgiving ruthlessness to internal party enemies that Corbyn’s team rarely had.

Farewell to 2020

In 2020 the focus of opposition to Tory misrule has moved more and more towards the extra-parliamentary arena: to the wider activist Left, the social movements and the trade unions. The Counterfire weekly briefing, mainly written by Lindsey German, has analysed this year’s dramatic and unprecedented political developments. It has been geared toward sharpening the left’s interventions in political debates, with a view to building and coordinating resistance more effectively.

Counterfire’s own growth during 2020 has been but one small manifestation of the wider phenomenon of socialist politics shifting beyond the Labour Party and electoral politics. In 2021 we will be aiming to nurture a bigger, more rooted and more combative radical left that can champion a socialist alternative to a system that is mired in crisis.

When this briefing returns in January, it will be a contribution towards those wider efforts. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy a restful seasonal break.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).