At the risk of sounding cliché, 2020 was pretty unusual as far as years go. A few days after leaving the European Union, the COVID-19 death toll in Britain has exceeded 75,000. The Conservative government must take responsibility for both, and which one they manage to shift the focus onto could be the defining point of the coming year.
With two vaccines now approved for use in the UK, we appear to be in the home stretch of COVID-19. The aftermath of it, however, will be at least as politically eventful as the pandemic itself. In July, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey put forward a private members’ bill calling for a public inquiry into the governments’ handling of the pandemic, due for its second reading at the end of January 2021.
Whilst the government, and the political establishment in general, could easily get away with ignoring anything suggested by the Liberal Democrats, it seems intuitive that there will be an inquiry, whether because of Davey’s bill or otherwise.
Even the Conservative parliamentary party is rife with discontent with the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly from their new intake of MPs representing former Labour seats in the North of England, who are now organising themselves as the Northern Research Group.
These Tory rebels, along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, could exert enough pressure to call an inquiry, whether the government wants one or not. Pressure is already mounting for it to start this month, and the prime minister stands accused of dragging his feet on the matter.
An inquiry may at first seem like very bad news for the Tories, but this would be to underestimate their pragmatism. It is true that the government has been beleaguered by scandals regarding the acquisition of PPE, Matt Hancock appointing his university friend and lobbyist to a rather well paid advisor job in his department, and the PM allowing his special adviser to get away with flaunting his violation of COVID restrictions. Yet, the Tories have made and survived mistakes many a time before.
The Conservatives can be rather ruthless in their treatment of their own, and as we move towards a level of normality and an inquiry starts to dig into the government’s actions over the past year, they will start to flex their Machiavellian muscles once again.
Matt Hancock, as health secretary, may seem indispensable now, but this will not always be so. He has started to cover his own tracks by restructuring Public Health England into the National Institute for Health Protection, which will no doubt complicate any potential inquiry into the COVID response.
This also provides a helpful scapegoat, as Hancock can blame the institution of Public Health England for some of the pandemic response failure and point to his speedy call for a restructure as evidence of his determination to fix an ossified institution.
If an inquiry does find that Hancock personally was responsible for the failure of testing in care homes or any similar horrifying blunders, it is hard to imagine him staying in his current job, allowing the government to place blame on him.
The hierarchy of blame, however, will not end with the health secretary. Boris Johnson himself will come under the scrutineering lens of an inquiry, and before the Conservative Party as a whole, he too may be one of the expendables.
If any of his decisions, the initial slowness of the first lockdown, the absurd tier system which is now in effect a national lockdown or the slow rollout of mass testing, are found to be the cause of the tragically high number of COVID deaths, the party machine could well chew him up and spit him out as it has done to so many prime ministers before him.
The chance of Boris Johnson being forced out by his own party could be considered higher, not lower, now that we have left the European Union for good. He has done what he promised to do in his general election campaign, thereby cementing at least part of his legacy.
Given his slowly falling popularity, and decisions during the pandemic, it does not seem impossible that the governing organ of the Conservative Party, the 1922 Committee, could ask him to resign, so he can preserve his legacy as the PM who delivered Brexit, or face a leadership challenge if necessary.
Whatever any inquiry may find about the governments’ response to the pandemic, we should be mindful of the fact that the public may well just give them the benefit of the doubt.
The pandemic is not just a political issue like any other, the arguments surrounding policy regarding it are, usually at least, non-ideological – it involves statistics and epidemiology, not principles and theory. As such, many of the government’s mistakes may well be written off as them just “doing their best in a hard situation”, a narrative they will no doubt seize if it seems advantageous.
Many opponents of the government seem to be hitching their wagons to the idea that they will be snowed in by fallout from the pandemic, but this seems unlikely. The more people and institutions across which the government can spread the blame for the tragedy of 2020, the less the governing party itself will be considered responsible.
If they can spin 2020 as a year of national struggle against the virus and against the EU, 2021 may be theirs to seize.