A position of maximum opportunity or maximum danger?

6 July 2020

DRD Partner Pete Bowyer explores why last weekend was a critical juncture for the Government, and how the Prime Minister is trying to take back control of his Premiership, return to his Election promises, and set the tone for a new agenda over the coming months.

Finally, the pubs re-opened at the weekend. A moment of national jubilation, just in time to celebrate that historic British triumph over adversity: American independence – Cheers y’all!

While the whole of England (bar Leicester) raced down to their local Wetherspoons and sank a dozen Jägerbomb chasers a piece, Boris urged caution: ‘Act responsibly’ is his new message. Yes, it’s fine now to visit your local, have your favourite tipple, suitably socially distanced, of course, and pubs could even show the big match on ‘Super Saturday’ (providing the sound is turned down and there’s strictly no chanting).

The easing of lockdown measures from 4 July, which also includes the formal relaxing of the 2 metre social distancing rule to 1 metre plus (whatever that means), allows not only pubs and bars to re-open, but restaurants, hairdressers, and some cultural facilities too. In addition, people arriving in England from certain countries including France, Spain, Germany and Italy will no longer need to quarantine from 10 July. After months of hardship, life is slowly beginning to return to normal. Or, a new normal (whatever that may be).

This couldn’t have come at a better time for the Prime Minister. Just over six months ago, he delivered a resounding Election victory for the Conservatives which secured the country’s formal exit from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and, even as COVID-19 began to hit the UK in March, the Tories poll ratings surged to around 50% in the face of a risible opposition. But how times have changed since then.

Latest official statistics show there has now been 283,757 coronavirus cases recorded in the UK and, sadly, 43,995 deaths. It’s one of the worst records in the developed world, with only the United States and Brazil recording more fatalities. The economy has ground to a halt with GDP contracting by a massive 20% in April alone, and the OECD forecasting that the UK will suffer the steepest economic decline of any advanced economy. Meanwhile, the Opposition has been re-invigorated under its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who regularly pastes the Prime Minister at PMQs and has dragged his party’s poll ratings to near parity with the Conservatives. There have even been some Tory MPs who have begun to mutter darkly about whether Johnson is really up to the job for the full term.

The opportunity to bring some good cheer to the nation – as well as his own backbenchers – by relaxing lockdown measures, then, is a critical moment for the PM. His chief adviser, having escaped the clamour for his removal following his jolly jaunt to Barnard Castle, has dusted down his John Boyd manual and got out his OODA loop. At a meeting of Special Advisers, he told them that now was the time to get back to delivering those manifesto pledges that had swept the Conservatives to power in December.

This resulted in the Prime Minister’s ‘Build, build, build’ speech earlier this week that really rammed the point home. It explained how he wanted to use the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis to ‘level-up’ the country – his promise to re-build the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats that the Conservatives won from Labour at the last Election, many of which, incidentally, have been among the worst affected by coronavirus. Unlike his predecessors, there would be no return to austerity, a big turn off for such voters, but instead he would shower them with gifts in the form of massive investment in shiny new hospitals, schools and transport infrastructure.

Significantly, the speech was delivered not in Downing Street, but in Dudley. It was a sign – a metaphor, even – that the Prime Minister himself was fit and well once again, on the road to recovery, deep in what had just recently been enemy territory. Having struggled valiantly, and having made many sacrifices, the country was now in what Ron Atkinson used to describe as the POMO (‘position of maximum opportunity’), and the blonde bombshell was ready to bang the ball home.

But, not so fast, Boris! While Johnson was out and about, his chief consigliere was tinkering, some might say, dismantling the structures of government itself and taking out key personnel. Having already subsumed Treasury into No.10, which led to the resignation of former Chancellor, Sajid Javid, next to go was the Department for International Development. Amid howls of protest from former PMs, who feared a weakening of our commitment to international aid targets, it was consumed into a new gargantuan FCO (which also lost its respected Permanent Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald).

Then it was the turn of the government’s most senior mandarin, Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill to announce early retirement. Appointed by Theresa May, he had a tense relationship with Johnson and Cummings as sources in Downing Street accused him of failing to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. His replacement as National Security Adviser was the UK’s current chief Brexit negotiator, Sir David Frost, who will be elevated to the House of Lords on the Conservative benches. In a withering intervention in the House of Commons, May demonstrated that revenge is not always a dish best served cold by skewering Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and asking “why the new national security adviser is a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security?” May’s intervention, somewhat ironically, overshadowed the PM’s own ‘Build, build, build’ speech of the same day.

But this is just a minor irritant to the current Prime Minister. By reshaping government, particularly foreign affairs, and appointing Frost who will now oversee national security, international strategy, and continue to lead the British delegation in Brussels trade talks, the PM and his chief adviser will seek to impose their vision of Global Britain through a loyal, and powerful, foreign policy Tsar.

Mirrored by a new focus on domestic policy, the government is seeking to re-assert itself both at home and abroad. Those of his MPs with a glass half full outlook believe that this is the opportunity for Johnson to change the mood music of his premiership – with a majority of 80 and four years left in power, circumstances are clearly on his side.

But those with a glass half empty attitude, see this not as a ‘position of maximum opportunity’ but a ‘position of maximum danger’. They fear that any further mishandling of the crisis could lead to a second COVID-19 spike, restrictions being re-imposed, the economy tanking further and the government unravelling quickly. Those with long memories draw parallels to how John Major’s government suffered a long, painful decline following Black Wednesday early in his Premiership. Time will tell if history will repeat itself, but the next few months are likely to be crucial to the fate of this government.

opportunity, opportunity, opportunity