The coronavirus epidemic has revealed many secrets about our nation, not all of them welcome, but perhaps the most concerning for those of us who identify as conservatives has been the very un-conservative approach of our Prime Minister, a man only elected to lead our proud party in July of 2019.
It already feels like that was a lifetime ago, a memory of a bygone age when things were simpler, despite Brexit. He almost immediately (by UK political standards) called a general election in which he resoundingly defeated the Marxist leader of the Labour party and cemented his power with a majority even the most optimistic Tories were not expecting.
Hopes were high then, to say the least, for Tories of all stripes. Here was a once in a generation opportunity to have that dose of common-sense conservative leadership that had been so absent during the Cameron and May years.
Of course nobody could have predicted that within three months of that election victory he would be met by a pandemic. Nor that he would himself become seriously ill with the virus.
But this is the lot of Prime Ministers, and they cannot pick and choose which crisis’ or personal circumstances they face. They need to have solid principles and a firm resolve, and be prepared for things to go wrong, very quickly. It comes with the territory. If you are not prepared to face such challenges then you are not up to the job.
Mr Johnson’s response to the pandemic has been anything other than conservative, and there are three compelling arguments as to why.
The first is ideological. It is a simple matter of the relationship between the individual and the state. Conservatives dislike state interference in people’s day to day lives. Strange then, that Johnson’s still young government has overseen the most state interference in our everyday lives since World War Two.
Lockdown’s are no joke. I think lockdown was necessary at the start, but the case for it lasting this long is murky at best. Infections have been dropping daily, the curve has truly been flattened (and that was the original rationale for a lockdown, remember) and the NHS has coped well enough that nurses have had time to produce Tik-Tok videos of them dancing around empty wards.
The fears from the beginning of the crisis, about hospitals running out of ventilators and the sickest patients being denied life saving treatment, have not come to pass. And yet lockdown continues day after day, with only a mild loosening.
It is easy, amid the chaos and panic, to forget a few simple facts. The virus is nowhere near as deadly as first believed. Most people will experience a mild to moderate illness (I have had it myself and can testify that it is not pleasant) and for those under 70 without an underlying health condition the mortality rate falls to extremely remote numbers, the sort of numbers which make it more likely that you would die in a traffic accident than from Coronavirus.
A real conservative, confronted with this information, would not have tolerated the government placing its citizens under perpetual lockdown for a moment longer than necessary.
It simply is not the place of the state to limit its citizens from moving, seeing their families, earning a living, congregating in groups, for a moment longer than necessary, if it is at all necessary.
The second argument is that conservatives appreciate the need for a strong economy. It matters not if you are a one-nation tory or a Thatcherite, without a strong and functioning economy people are drawn towards socialism as they see their incomes fall and the twin demons of high inflation (and thus devaluation of currency) and mass unemployment rear their ugly heads.
But rather than protect our economy, Johnson has embarked on an unaffordable and economically destructive furlough scheme which has seen over forty per cent of the working population depending on the state for their income (in addition of course to those who were dependant on the state before Covid-19).
This is unprecedented in peacetime and even if you assume the economy will bounce back once lockdown ends (a brave assumption to say the least) it will take many, many years to pay off the debt burden caused by such a scheme. It is the type of thing I would have expected from Jeremy Corbyn, or perhaps Gordon Brown. Boris has already, and rather prematurely, ruled out austerity measures to help cope with this enormous bill.
So tax rises it is then! The debt cannot simply go unpaid, the amounts borrowed and the interest charged will be staggering. And these taxes will of course hit all working people, higher rate and basic rate income taxpayers, there simply is no other way to raise a substantial (I use the term loosely) sum of money quickly.
Expect other taxes too, though. A rise in VAT, corporation tax, all kind of green utopian taxes aimed at making us carbon net-zero. I do not see how small and medium sized businesses can cope in such an environment, those that are left following lockdown of course. Many that closed their doors upon government orders will never re-open, particularly in the travel and hospitality industries.
The third argument is perhaps the strongest of all though. The total lack of common sense, and capitulation to mass media hysteria and panic in response to the virus. As I have alluded to earlier, the virus hasn’t turned out to be a mass killer of healthy people. What it has done, sadly, is kill many people who already had very weak immune systems, either due to old age (eighty years plus) or serious pre-existing health conditions, or both.
I don’t dismiss the virus as harmless because it clearly is not that. But it has not killed significantly more people than a bad flu season. In the winter of 2014/15 there were 44,000 excess winter flu deaths. We do not impose lockdowns due to flu.
The key difference of course is that there is usually a vaccine for seasonal flu, but as vaccines take years to test and declare safe for humans, the only alternative is to pursue herd immunity in the population, and allow young, healthy individuals to catch the virus, their healthy bodies kill it, and they develop immunity to catching it again, at least until a vaccine is developed. Once they can’t catch it, the virus cannot be carried through them to be caught by the most vulnerable members of the population. It simply can’t survive for very long without human carriers. Instead, we have embarked on a mass quarantine of healthy people; whilst enforcing this we have not focused enough on protecting the vulnerable- particularly those in care homes.
Indeed the government was pursuing this cause of action in the early days, asking only the most at risk groups to isolate themselves at home, but lost their nerve when a since discredited scientist using a flawed computer model told them there could be 500,000 excess deaths. There are just too many variables in play to believe such wild claims, much less curtail people’s freedoms due to them.
How many of those deaths attributed to covid-19 were caused by the virus itself, and how many people had the virus when they died due to something else? How many deaths have been caused by lockdown, directly and indirectly? The rise in mental illness, suicides, job losses, rise in obesity, divorces, domestic abuse, lost education, the list of unwanted (and in my view, unwarranted) side effects goes on and on.
Lockdown has possibly curtailed the spread of the virus for a time, but what happens then, when it ends? A second spike? There is no exit strategy short of developing a vaccine which will take years, no matter what we are told. It gives me no pleasure to say these things but we have to face the facts as they are, not how we wish them to be.
Johnson has shown a lack of common sense ever since he re-emerged from hospital. What should have happened is a twelve week lockdown of the most vulnerable members of society, while workplaces and schools stayed open as far as was possible to help achieve a level of herd immunity to prevent a second wave of this awful virus.
That could have happened without expanding the state, without destroying our economy, and without heaping misery onto millions of people who would otherwise have experienced only mild symptoms from the virus.
Once you notice Johnson’s un-conservative approach to this, you start you remember other un-conservative traits that he has had; it is like placing a jigsaw together. He was very, very late to the Brexit cause and in fact was strongly considering advocating for remain until the last moment. He is socially liberal, which is not unusual among recent conservative leaders but hardly helps his case for being a conservative. He is a celebrity, a metropolitan London type (hence his two terms as mayor) and he has appointed similar people to high positions in his cabinet. Which leads to uncomfortable conclusions. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
I predict once the chaos has passed, many in the Conservative Party will have changed their minds about Johnson as leader and about his conservative credentials. Their mood will not be improved by the tax rises, falling incomes and economic depression that await us on the other side of this crisis.
And if enough evidence emerges that Johnson could have taken a different approach to the lockdown that could have saved us our civil liberties and our economy, then his lack of conservatism will return to haunt him yet.
Photo by Chatham House on Flickr.