How Boris Johnson is manipulating lockdown – Patrick Mercer

I WAS talking to a serving MP a couple of weeks ago about the current government’s shortcomings. He’s a loyal fellow, I’ve always known that, but he was remarkably candid about how badly the Covid crisis had been handled.

He was especially scathing about the endless U-turns, the lack of clear thinking and about how the whole, miserable affair is going to conclude.

Then, having checked off Number’s 10’s litany of follies, he brought our chat to end with a simple “Yes, but despite all this, we’re still ahead in the polls and that’s what matters!”

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It took a minute for this bit of insouciant arrogance to soak in. He’s a decent man, yet he seemed to be telling me that none of the economic, social, educational and medical ruin, none of the mourning and loneliness, none of the half truths and chicanery which have beset us for almost a year mattered as much as his salary, pension and prospects.

Boris Johnson's lockdown-lifting plans continue to come under intense scrutiny.

Now, this startling glimpse into the political psyche set me to thinking about what really motivates our masters and how that will affect our course out of lockdown.

I know how cynical this sounds, but I’d suggest that the main targets for the Government this year are not our wealth and health, but their own political goals.

Foremost is the spectre of a landslide victory in Scotland for Nicola Sturgeon and the leviathan of another referendum.

As I’ve said in this column before, regardless of its effect on most people, the possibility of the break-up of the Union is going to be the next big, all-encompassing political issue: another Brexit or Covid.

Boris Johnson is already looking ahead to May's local elections, writes former Tory MP Patrick Mercer.

I suggest that the local elections on May 6 will dictate how we unlock – not the rebuilding of the economy, the progress of the vaccination programme, nor the efficacy of the NHS.

No matter what advice Sage gives, no matter how many new variants reach our shores, the body politic has got to be able to door-knock, debate, campaign and ultimately vote: restrictions will be eased to allow that.

Now, current polls suggest that a swathe of Tory MSPs along with councillors, police and crime commissioners in England are going to find themselves out of a job in May.

Despite the fact that Scotland’s First Minister is locked in a death struggle with Alex Salmond, the canny Nicola Sturgeon has found time to sweeten her voters by moving out of lockdown a couple of weeks before the English. Children in Leith were back in the classroom last Monday whilst those in Leeds will have to wait until March 8. Similarly, Ms Sturgeon will be the toast of Scottish pubs from late April whilst the English won’t be able to stand at the bar until May 17 (at the earliest).

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for a second referendum on independence.

Yet, I wonder if Boris Johnson might have a few tricks up his sleeve, too? There’s a whisper in Westminster that a big pay bonus is on the way for the NHS. There’s also a bit of mischief being bruited about that Scotland’s stalling vaccine programme could get a shot in the arm from a few hundred thousand, surplus doses being sent up from England. Now, if either of these rumours is true, I’d be shocked if they didn’t happen just before polling day.

And then there’s the current government mantra of ‘under promise and over deliver’, which has worked rather well with vaccinations.

Should jabs stay on course whilst infections and deaths continue to fall, wouldn’t it be a coup for Downing Street to lift lockdown measures early and, say, open the pubs just on the eve-of-poll?

The Government’s second great goal, of course, is the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June.

Will Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron et al really have to cool their heels in a Heathrow hotel for a few days before getting at the pasties?

Of course not: travel restrictions will suddenly melt away as the great and the good flock to the coolest show in town.

Now, I was horrified a few weeks ago to hear Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggest that the strictures and structures we’ve created to combat the current pandemic could and would be used to counter other epidemics like flu.

But, couldn’t the same measures equally well be employed as a climate change tool? It will be fascinating to hear what conclusions the luminaries come to in Carbis Bay.

In a deeply dispiriting interview, Professor Neil Ferguson recently reflected on using the Chinese model of total lockdown in Britain, “(China’s) a communist... state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”

Well, it feels to me that our government has not only got away with using lockdowns, but they’re about to get away with manipulating them simply for their own purposes.

That cannot be right, can it?

Patrick Mercer is a former
 Conservative MP.

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