If the last few years of politics proved anything, it is that the most unexpected situations quickly become reality. Few, even Nigel Farage, thought that Brexit would ultimately triumph in 2016. Though Jeremy Corbyn was hugely defeated in 2019, his remarkably better than expected performance in 2017 was spotted by few people. And after being written off as a dismal foreign secretary, Boris Johnson’s ascent to prime minister was remarkable to witness.
Could something equally unpredictable happen again? It doesn’t look impossible. I speak of the Conservatives and their governance after the pandemic. While it may seem premature to discuss life after COVID-19, the success of numerous vaccines against different mutations suggests a return to life before 2020 doesn’t look unrealistic. Indeed, on the matter of life and death, party politics can seem, at best, petty.
Yet it is ultimately political parties who take office and are in charge. Though the role of scientific advisers has been more promoted than ever, it was Boris Johnson and his Cabinet who decided to lock down Britain on three occasions. While scientists and civil servants will have heavily advised the government on the different strategies available, the leaders made the final choice. It is them, and their party, who should face necessary accountability.
Numerous articles, long reads, books, documentaries, and films will detail the vast failings of the UK government responding to the pandemic. Despite a pandemic being listed as a serious threat facing the country, most people will have given any government the benefit of the doubt when dealing with such a huge crisis.
Even the benefit of the doubt would disappear eventually. From locking down late the first time to removing quarantining advice, inadequate testing and PPE, mixed messages on face masks to unclear travel corridors, the cacophony of areas that will have undoubtedly cost lives cannot be understated.
The Conservatives, despite being the party of government and holding office for nearly a decade, may get away with it. The precise foundations of such a public inquiry remain unclear. Its running time, exact remit, evidence taken and who it holds accountable haven’t yet been made obvious. It may give the Conservative government the drubbing they deserve, though to pre-empt any verdict would be unwise.
However, it is ultimately voters who will determine whether the Conservatives are guaranteed another five years in office in just over three years.
Their success at any election will depend on what voters remember. This can change so rapidly in just a year. Not long ago, talk of Eat Out to Help Out was all the range. The policy was widely supported for helping businesses revive themselves over the summer months. Now, it has been far more critically received. Our interpretation has changed and is so often linked to the present moment.
If the UK is lucky enough not to suffer a severe wave of coronavirus, could it be that the success of the vaccine rollout is remembered? Despite disputes with the EU, this is a cause for celebration. That hundreds of thousands of people are receiving their first jab every single day is such a positive, brilliant message that rapidly reduces the time until normality can be reached. The brilliance in Kate Bingham’s planning, ordering far more doses than would be required, has meant the UK’s success in vaccine rollouts cannot be denied.
Might this be what voters remember? Indeed, despite numerous government failures, the polling performance of the Conservatives has been fascinating. They have repeatedly performed well. Why? There are numerous potential reasons. Some voters may see the pandemic as above politics – it is the very opposite.
Others may believe the virus transmission is down to individual rule-breakers rather than structural failures. Sadly, some may think no government, regardless of party, could have dealt better with the pandemic and therefore have given the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt ever since the pandemic arrived.
Some fault, however, must be given to the Labour leader Keir Starmer. It is tricky at the best of times for a Leader of the Opposition to carve out an image for themselves. This has been near impossible in the pandemic, where Starmer’s tenure has been defined by a response to the pandemic.
However, leaked internal documents regarding Labour acting in a more patriotic manner would suggest the party lacks vision about its return to power and making a convincing argument for governance.
Acting in haste helps nobody. The next election is three years away and much will have changed then, and while the pandemic will most likely remain a clear focus, other issues may dominate the election campaign. Nonetheless, the electoral success of Boris Johnson across the country shouldn’t be underrated. Though seen as weaker last autumn, it is now his opponent who is on the back-foot.
Despite the atrocious manner with which they’ve dealt with a pandemic, if the vaccine rollout continues well, it may be the current party of government who are celebrating a return to power come 2024.