With the government now facing effective political opposition, hopefully the balance of power in Westminster will be restored, writes Paul Montague-Smith – Senior Counsel – Public Affairs at MRM.
The impact of the pandemic in human terms is stark. Over 20,000 hospital deaths at time of writing, the highest weekly mortality figures for 20 years, relatives not being allowed to be with loved ones when they die, lockdown extended into mid-May.
Official figures don’t reflect the true loss of life. Double the number of hospital deaths and you’re likely to be in the ballpark of the actual number of Covid-19 related mortalities.
The economic impact of the lockdown on businesses and individuals is also enormous. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates a 35% contraction in GDP in Q2 – 13% for 2020 as a whole – with unemployment soaring to over two million. The scale of disruption and the impact on both businesses and the public finances has led to strong differences of view at cabinet level about when to begin lifting restrictions.
Treasury hawks know that unless it is soon very many businesses will fold, not least as the government loan schemes haven’t been attractive or quick enough in getting money to firms.
The good news is that the recent figures suggest a plateauing of new cases. The bad news is there is, as yet, no clear way out of this mess even with Boris Johnson’s return to lead. The government has been struggling to arrange mass testing for NHS and social care workers, let alone the wider population. Without knowing the prevalence and real mortality rate in the community, lifting restrictions is a leap in the dark.
But it will probably have to be done, little by little, to keep the public onside. If a third extension of the lockdown is announced, we could easily see protests and demonstrations like in the US.
The government has the incredibly difficult task of balancing the range of conflicting interests – economic, social and health. As we move towards the next review of the lockdown, pressure to lift the restrictions will most likely increase. We are beginning to see stories of flipside impacts emerge. Cancer specialists, for example, say there will be more deaths from the drop-off in screening than from Covid-19.
With Keir Starmer and his refreshed shadow cabinet in place, we at least now have the prospect of an effective opposition to test government policy, hold it to account and help drive the best outcomes. Starmer is extremely bright and a details man. Having secured a majority of votes across all constituent groups in the race for the leadership, he has the mandate to try and reshape the party into a credible electoral force.
Don’t expect a rush towards Blairism though. Starmer is centre left in the party, a lifelong campaigner for social justice who stood on a ticket confirming much of the party’s existing policy platform. His appointment of former leader Ed Miliband (of producers vs predators fame) as shadow business secretary gives an indication of where he sits on the political spectrum.
Like the rest of us, Parliament is also having to adapt to these new times so that it can fulfil its function. MPs can now take part in questions and debates remotely. So far it’s gone pretty well – unlike in the Welsh Assembly! This month we should see the implementation of remote voting so the government can get essential legislation through.
In last month’s note we flagged the likely long-term impact of the crisis on our politics. With Boris Johnson ascribing his survival to the NHS we’re even more convinced that we’re seeing a fundamental shift that will shape political discourse and priorities for decades to come.
How the government deals with the expected £260bn budget deficit resulting from the impact of coronavirus will almost certainly be different to the approach taken following the global financial crisis.
Fingers crossed that when we come to look ahead to June, we can begin to talk about the path towards recovery!