Boris Johnson wants to be a good news prime minister. He is well suited to campaigns, when promises can be thrown around like confetti, but not suited to governing in hard times – let alone the biggest crisis facing the UK since the Second World War.
It was through gritted teeth that Johnson warned in March: “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Now he can finally be the purveyor of good news as he eases the lockdown, and deploy his trademark natural optimism, even if it is cautious.
The decision to end daily Downing Street press conferences will allow him to appear occasionally when he has good news – such as further relaxations of the lockdown – to announce. It’s an act of self-interest, just when the public need more rather than less government information. “One metre plus” surely needs explaining to stop the “plus” bit being ignored.
We’re told there will be occasional press conferences. Watch out for Matt Hancock popping up to announce any bad news or U-turns.
One motive is to shield ministers, some of whom struggled in the limelight, from probing questions exposing the tensions between them and their scientific and medical advisers, whose presence has been scaled down in recent weeks. The pressers worked well for No 10 when the politicians and expert advisers were in lockstep, at the start of the lockdown, but they have become a minefield to negotiate, with scientists quizzed in advance on how they would answer questions before being allowed to appear. Plain-speaking experts who would not endorse Dominic Cummings’s interpretation of the rules were quietly dropped. I doubt we will see Jonathan Van Tam or Ruth May at these future, occasional events.
It was revealing that Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, were markedly more cautious than Johnson at last night’s final daily press conference.
We shouldn’t be surprised that populists like to be popular and Johnson has a populist streak. He managed to find time during the coronavirus crisis to renew the culture war sparked by Brexit, talking up a non-existent threat to remove Churchill’s statute from Parliament Square so he could pledge to protect it and scrapping the UK’s Department for International Development even though it is highly respected around the world.
Johnson’s desire to please has also coloured his response to coronavirus. Did he delay imposing the lockdown because he feared (wrongly) the public would not obey the restrictions? Probably. Did he bring in the soon-to-be-diluted 14-day quarantine for arrivals in the UK because it would play well with working class Leave voters? Definitely.
It was pressure from Tory MPs rather than business which pushed Johnson into such a big package of lockdown-easing measures. He chose the most comprehensive option the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) put to him, rather than a more phased reopening.
Johnson wanted to throw a bone to his backbenchers, who are in a rebellious mood, feel ignored by No 10 and worry about his lack of grip after a spate of U-turns. Grumbling about his relatively low profile led to him becoming more visible 10 days ago, in the hope of dispelling rumours he has not fully recovered from his own brush with coronavirus. (Tories who use their Commons questions to tell the PM he looks “fighting fit” rather give the game away.)
His MPs have long been arguing for an “economy first” approach. In another concession to them, Johnson agreed to downgrade the lockdown curbs from legislation to guidance. But some Tories were still not satisfied. Their next target: to kill off the quarantine scheme completely.
With his MPs so grumpy, Johnson’s majority of 80 is not as secure as it looks. A Tory revolt will likely force him to drop plans to relax Sunday trading laws, and to downgrade Huawei’s role in providing the UK’s 5G network. An embarrassingly large rebellion – even if not big enough to defeat the government – can produce a change in policy, as already occurred over free school meals this summer. That wasn’t only about Marcus Rashford.
It’s far from the case that, with one bound, Johnson is free. He will worry about local flare-ups and a second wave this winter, which is a “real risk” according to health leaders today.
The UK couldn’t remain in lockdown forever but Johnson knows he could be blamed, and look incompetent, if some of the restrictions lifted on 4 July have to be reimposed later. There will be more difficult decisions and U-turns.
It’s going to be “messy”, ministers admit privately.