Treachery, the crafty French diplomat Talleyrand argued, is largely a matter of dates. Boris Johnson, who is no less of a political cynic than Talleyrand, would be wise to remember that this may also be true of triumph. It is only a fortnight since voters flocked to Johnson’s Conservatives in England’s local elections. At that moment, Johnson commanded the political scene, apparently untouchable, to the despair of his opponents.
A mere two weeks later, the clouds have darkened over Johnson’s coronavirus strategy like a gathering storm. His apparently sure touch in steering the country out of the worst of the pandemic – and reaping enormous electoral credit for the success of the vaccine programme – has begun to look more conditional. Johnson’s political vulnerability, within his party, in parliament and with the public, is more apparent than at any time this year.
Several things have converged to mean that this important, if not yet decisive, change in the politics of Covid should be carefully noted. The signs range from the embarrassing resignation this week of a nurse who helped save Johnson’s own life in St Thomas’ hospital last year to the confused messaging of successive government ministers as international leisure travel resumes before the pandemic is over. More mixed messaging from the prime minister on this issue at prime minister’s questions today added further to the stew.
However, the most potent reason for the change is the threat posed by the variant first identified in India to Johnson’s roadmap for leaving lockdown. This threat is itself hydra-headed in its subversive potential. It risks a resurgence in Covid cases not just in some distinct (and pretty big) places, but across the country. That is especially true if the B.1.617.2 variant – or inevitable future variants – proves more transmissible. The loosening of lockdown and the increase in travel and social contact make this a fearsome possibility, despite the vaccination programme’s undoubted success.
Politically this matters, because it has the potential to force Johnson to do the one iconic thing he has been determined all year not to do: reimpose lockdown as vaccination rates rise. After the delays and confusion that characterised his handling of coronavirus during 2020, Johnson plumped decisively for caution and consistency at the start of 2021. Lockdown and vaccines were the twin pillars of an approach that transformed his standing with the public and silenced his Tory critics, as long as it seemed to be working.
The test of the policy was always going to come when it was loosened, not while it was fully in force. But any talk about the possible reintroduction of local lockdowns and tiers – which did not work when they were tried before, and whose failure led directly to the new year nationwide lockdowns – shows how fragile the strategy remains. So does opening up foreign travel more widely at exactly the time when the increase in the latest variant appears so closely related to the government’s earlier failures to control borders.
These were foreseeable moments of crisis inherent in the policy itself. As long as the lockdown continued, they could be suppressed, but they were always dormant. A significant minority of Conservative MPs have zipped their lips since January, but they have not changed their minds. If there is a choice to be made between public lockdown and economic activity, as there will be in June, they will always choose the latter, using the language of liberty to disguise an essential indifference to the pandemic’s victims and their hostility to the state’s core responsibilities.
At which point, enter Dominic Cummings. This week the prime minister’s former strategist dismissed attempts to follow a “trade-off” approach between lockdown and economic recovery as disastrous. “This nonsense is STILL influencing policy, eg our joke borders policy,” he tweeted on Tuesday. The key to the pandemic was “fast hard effective action” to lock down. The success of the vaccine taskforce and rollout had made the government complacent.
Cummings will give evidence to the joint health and science select committee investigation on the handling of the pandemic next Wednesday. The session will be a high-stakes event, just before next week’s PMQs. But Cummings has already said enough to make it clear that he will attack precisely the strategy on which Johnson relied with such political success this spring. He will do so, moreover, at exactly the time when the unstable convergence between the surge of the India variant and confusion over foreign travel makes the challenge potentially explosive.
Just a week ago, Johnson still felt confident enough in the success of his Covid strategy to concede the case for an independent public inquiry into the pandemic response – on which he had previously prevaricated. Many key aspects of the inquiry are yet to be confirmed, not least its membership, its terms of reference and its UK-wide scope. Yet Johnson would never have made that announcement had he felt that its conclusions could pose a threat. But, as Cummings says, Johnson had become complacent about the trade-off strategy. The May elections boosted his confidence that he could win a general election in 2023 without having to worry about an inquiry that would not start work before 2022 and would not report until at least 2024.
Now, a mere eight days later, all that looks much more uncertain. Political triumphs are indeed a matter of dates. As one of Johnson’s prime ministerial predecessors once said, a week is a long time in politics.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist