Norms and Values
Covid and Leadership Crisis in Britain

The gulf between the promise and the delivery is widening, the political distance between the devolved administrations growing, and the distrust between the government and people deepening. Ultimately, Britain is suffering not only a crisis of governance but entering into a fully-fledged crisis of the state, writes Valdai Club expert Richard Sakwa.

The Omicron wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is accompanied by a deepening leadership crisis in British politics. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has admitted attending parties at No. 10 Downing Street and turning a blind eye to others at a time when such gatherings were forbidden, by none other than the government itself. This has provoked a wave of popular revulsion and undermined the credibility of the government. A ten-point gap has now opened up in the opinion polls between the Conservatives and the Labour Party, led by Sir Keir Starmer. 

The Omicron wave hit the UK in the weeks before Christmas 2021, forcing a number of restrictive measures, although in England there was no new lockdown. The devolved administrations took a much harder line, with the closure of hospitality venues in Wales, the introduction of Covid passes in Scotland, and limitations on gatherings in Northern Ireland. The so-called ‘Plan-B’ measures in England included the mandatory wearing of face masks in public transport and schools, but not much more. This high-risk strategy sought to protect jobs and consumer venues, but fear of the highly infectious new variant nevertheless dampened footfall everywhere and slowed Britain’s economic recovery. In November 2021 the UK economy just about returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the hospitality sector lost at least £3bn in revenue over the holiday period. 

Against the background of a very high level of double vaccine coverage and with extensive take-up of booster jabs, the strategy paid off. The British public has proved itself remarkably compliant with the rules, and there have been very few incidents of the sort seen in the Netherlands, France and elsewhere, where anti-vaxxer protesters have clashed with the police. 

The Omicron wave appears to have passed across Europe from West to East, and it is now arriving with full force in Russia. It is now ebbing in the UK, and some of the earlier restrictions in the devolved administrations have been lifted. This is not to say that the Omicron wave has not been devastating. Waiting lists on the National Health Service have reached the unprecedented level of six million people waiting for treatment. The infection rate nearly reached the levels seen in the first wave of Covid-19 in spring 2020 and the second wave that autumn. Omicron is still spreading fast, with nearly four million people in England alone infected in the first week January, although the rate appears to be falling in the under 50s, but they are rising in the older, more vulnerable, age groups. However, statistics suggest that hospitalisations have not proportionately increased, although given the sheer number of infections, the health service has continued to be under severe strain. 

This is compounded by decades of underinvestment. The number of hospital beds in England (health is a devolved competence, so the devolved administrations have their own figures) has fallen from 300,000 in 1988 to 141,000 today. Germany has 8 acute beds per 100,000 of population, France 6 beds but the UK only 2.5. Successive waves of reorganisation have left staff and administrators in the NHS constantly adjusting to new requirements and new chains of command. Parts have been opened up to market providers and competitive tendering, which critics condemn as stealth privatisation. 

Some of the benefits of an integrated health system have been lost. This certainly applies to the social care sector, which is run by local authorities although largely through private providers. In the early stages of the pandemic elderly patients were released from hospitals en masse into care homes to free up hospital beds, but thereby spreading the virus and leading to a shocking death rate. 

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Nevertheless, the blitz spirit triumphed, and sacrifices were made. Social distancing rules were observed, dying relatives could not be comforted, families were kept apart, while the sacrifices of an under-staffed and underpaid health and social care sector applauded. 

Thus it was all the more shocking when news began to emerge of parties in the garden of No. 10. Like the pandemic itself, this has come in the waves. The first wave from late December 2021 revealed that on 18 December 2020 a Christmas party had been held, against all the rules, apparently attended by Johnson and followed by a cover-up. The prime minister just about weathered this storm, although his aide, Allegra Stratton, resigned. Nevertheless, an investigation was launched, to complement the continuing investigation into who had paid for the refurbishment of the prime ministerial apartment. 

Despite growing discomfort with Johnson’s habitual flouting of the conventions of public life, reflected in the loss of two safe Conservative seats in by-elections, it looked as if the relative success in managing the pandemic – with a successful roll-out of vaccines and boosters, the supply crisis of personal protective equipment largely resolved (although accompanied by numerous scandals over uncontested contracts being awarded to Tory cronies), and the return to growth in the economy, it looked as if the government was safe. 

Then the second wave of ‘partygate’ broke. In early January 2022 it was revealed that on 20 May 2020, at the height of the first lockdown when there were strict limits on meeting people outside the immediate ‘bubble’, that a party had been held in the garden of No. 10. A senior civil servant had emailed 100 No. 10 staff to take advantage of the weather to hold a ‘socially-distanced’ drinks event ‘to make the most of the lovely weather’, with the injunction to ‘bring your own booze’. This was followed by revelations of a whole series of social events, including one on 16 April 2021, the eve of the funeral of the Queen’s consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, for which Downing Street had to apologise to the palace. 

The impact on public opinion was electrifying. A host of media stories recounted how on that day people had buried loved ones or had been isolated because of the social distancing rules. The sense of popular revulsion was almost palpable. Johnson was forced to apologise to the House of Commons on 12 January, but his half-hearted protestations of semi-innocence won him few friends. There is a rising chorus of calls for Johnson to resign, including from the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. The matter came under the scrutiny of Susan Gray, a civil servant with a redoubtable reputation as a fearless and impartial investigator. 

Several chickens are coming to roost. First, the irresponsible conduct of the prime minister himself. He has always had the reputation of someone who is above the laws of decency and honesty, let alone truthfulness. In the past this for many was part of his insouciant charm, allowing him to win the London mayoral elections twice, to emerge triumphant in the Brexit vote of June 2016 and above all to win the general election of December 2019 with a handsome majority of 80 for the Conservatives. He had also managed to negotiate the Brexit deal with the European Union, including the Northern Ireland Protocol drawing an effective border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border between the two parts of Ireland, but no sooner was the document signed than he set about repudiating his own deal. It looked finally that he was running out of road, and his cheery ‘cakeist’ ideology (having his cake and eating it) would no longer wash. 

Second, the crisis revealed the degeneration of the Conservative Party itself, a process that in its modern guise was set in train by Margaret Thatcher. At that time the party lost most of what makes a party ‘conservative’ and instead it embraced radical neoliberal positions that allowed the public services to be gutted and the idea of civic responsibility demeaned – a process all the more peculiar since Thatcher was the daughter of a civic-minded alderman in Grantham, Lincolnshire. 

The third point is the larger socio-economic context. There is a severe cost-of-living crisis, with energy prices at record levels, inflation rising, wages largely stagnant and a range of tax increases on their way. Government support schemes during the pandemic have cost at least £200bn, and now they have to be paid for. Despite a decade of austerity after 2010, UK public spending is reaching pre-Thatcherite levels last seen in the 1970s, at 41.6 per cent of GDP. As a result, the tax burden will reach its highest rate since the 1950s, at 36.2 per cent of GDP. 

Conservative Party leaders today are elected solely by sitting MPs. To trigger a leadership election 15 per cent of them have to write to the chair of the 1922 Committee requesting a leadership ballot. This means that 54 MPs have to muster their courage to overthrow Johnson. One of the problems is that there is no clear leader in waiting, The two leading contenders are Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer and Liz Truss, the foreign minister, but a number of other potential candidates are waiting in the wings, including the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

Johnson has led a charmed political life, so he may well survive this crisis of his leadership, although the odds against are shortening all the time.

As always in the UK, an intra-party change of prime minister is accompanied by calls for a general election (as was the case when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007), but the Conservatives will hardly risk their majority, especially when the planned constituency boundary changes come into effect as well as what are claimed to be US-style voter-suppression mechanisms, including the compulsory use of ID in voting. 

Above all, Brexit is proving an impossible project, in the sense that it would take far more commitment and intelligent leadership to make its fundamental premise work – that it would free hitherto suppressed entrepreneurial energies to turn Britain into a Singapore on the Thames, implement the social democratic ‘levelling up’ agenda to raise living standards, infrastructure investment and opportunities in the north to south-eastern levels all the time while remaining true to one-nation conservatism. Instead, the gulf between the promise and the delivery is widening, the political distance between the devolved administrations growing, and the distrust between the government and people deepening. Ultimately, Britain is suffering not only a crisis of governance but entering into a fully-fledged crisis of the state.

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