Boris Johnson has done his best to avoid journalists’ questions in recent weeks but it suited him to finally face them at last night’s Downing Street press conference.
He was accused of being “in hiding” over the festive break to avoid speaking about the Number 10 parties before Christmas 2020. The backcloth for his two public appearances was (inevitably) vaccination centres (not far from his Chequers country retreat), rather than a cheese and wine party.
But Johnson needed to give the impression of starting the new year on the front foot. Message to voters: the chaos of the past two months of 2021 is behind me. (Everything crossed). I’ve smartened up my act and even had a proper haircut. (Good advice, Carrie). His press conference also pushed Keir Starmer’s new year speech down the TV news bulletins.
While the Omicron variant is Johnson’s biggest short-term threat, it also offers his best opportunity to show the public he can still govern effectively. On the face of it, it was odd for Johnson to argue that there’s a “good chance” of avoiding further restrictions in England on the day which saw a record 218,000 new cases and when he admitted the NHS would be under “huge pressure” over the next few weeks. He even conceded parts of the NHS would feel “at least temporarily overwhelmed,” coming perilously close to his own benchmark for further intervention.
Although Johnson allies are cautiously optimistic his gamble will pay off, ministers’ hopes that Omicron has peaked in London were not supported by Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. The wave has reached other regions, where non-urgent operations are being cancelled. We still don’t know how Omicron will affect over-50s after intergenerational mixing at Christmas or the impact of the return of schools.
What Johnson didn’t say is that it is probably already too late for new restrictions to have any impact on this wave, as government advisers warned before Christmas. Today, Mike Tildesley of Warwick University, which did some of the modelling, told the BBC: “Early interventions would have had some impact in reducing the number of cases and reducing the pressure on hospitals, but at this point… the impact of any interventions being introduced now would be that much less effective.”
In other words, the die was cast when Johnson failed to act before Christmas – hemmed in politically by the Tory backbenchers who rebelled over Plan B and by his own cabinet. It was revealing that he announced he would “recommend” the cabinet sticks to his Plan B at its meeting today, a reminder that his writ no longer runs automatically and that his room for manoeuvre is limited.
Labour attacks the prime minister’s “incompetence” at every turn. Yet while insisting it “follows the science”, Labour does not call for England to come into line with the stricter rules in Scotland, Northern Ireland and (Labour-run) Wales in case Johnson’s gamble pays off; that would allow him to claim Keir Starmer had proposed another lockdown.
Although the booster campaign is a crucial part of the government’s armoury, it also gives Johnson a chance to demonstrate “competence.” How he needs another “vaccine bounce” in the opinion polls now. His problem is that some voters no longer give him the benefit of the doubt after “partygate.”
The booster drive has stalled, while overwhelmed hospitals, shortages of tests and staff absences in key services paint a picture of chaos, not competence. Schools face more problems too.
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True, the testing system will be changed so people do not have to get a confirmatory PCR test after a lateral flow one shows them positive, cutting the isolation period. Pre-departure tests for people travelling to the UK will be scrapped. But such tweaks might not change the overall picture.
Johnson’s refusal to impose new curbs will buy him a little time with lockdown sceptic Tory MPs but he has not escaped their shadow yet. The current restrictions in England are due to expire on 26 January. The scientists will likely want them to be extended but the lockdown sceptics want them scrapped. Another dilemma.
Johnson will doubtless muddle through, until the May local elections at least. But he has lost his authority and Omicron is not going to restore it or rescue his premiership. According to Ipsos MORI, while 84 per cent of people believe the government has done a good job on vaccination, more think it has done a bad than good one on all the other issues tested – the economy, Brexit, climate change, tax and spending, the NHS, crime, education, “levelling up” and immigration.
Moreover, Johnson’s other problems – “partygate” and a cost of living crisis that will dominate the political year ahead – have not gone away and will soon be back to haunt him.
Source Link Voices: The booster drive can’t save Boris Johnson from ‘partygate’ and the cost of living crisis