As we enter the Covid endgame, the Government is looking increasingly boxed in as Labour sets out its policies and backbenchers foment rebellion, writes Paul Montague-Smith.
Ever since emergency legislation was passed to restrict our freedoms to limit the spread of Covid, a group of Conservative backbenchers has urged an early return to normal and been worried that freedoms wouldn’t be handed back once the crisis had passed.
Public opinion, however, was on the side of the Government – in fact it has been more cautious than the Government. With Labour supporting restrictions, the libertarians in the Conservative party haven’t had the numbers to threaten a parliamentary defeat and shift policy.
‘Freedom Day’ has now come and gone, but rules remain, and new ones are still to come. Concerned about the stalled uptake of vaccinations amongst the young, the Government has announced people will need to be double jabbed to go to a night club or a large indoor event.
It has even been floated that students won’t be able to live in halls of residence or attend lectures unless they are fully vaccinated.
Rather than a nudge, the Prime Minister appears ready to shove. With Labour opposed to a policy that ignores a testing option, a defeat in the Commons must be on the cards when the Commons returns in September.
The Government’s approach risks alienating a section of voters they should be looking to make inroads with. Older people are far more likely to vote Conservative, younger ones Labour.
Tory strategists may think it won’t make a material difference, but with pensioners probably needing to pay more as we rebalance our nation’s finances, it could be wise to think carefully about how much pressure they put on younger adults to roll up their sleeves.
The vaccine bounce for the Government appears to be waning, not helped by the chaos and mixed messages around the ‘pingdemic’. The latest polling by Survation puts the Conservatives on 39% with Labour only two points behind. Labour – pretty much politically hamstrung during the teeth of the pandemic – has started to set out its stall on bread-and-butter issues.
Starting with employment rights (not least to try and unify the party and keep unions onside) the leadership has announced a ‘new deal’ for workers, with all employees eligible for holiday, sick pay and parental leave from day one and flexible working the default.
Time will tell if they can unify and get cut-through with the public, who tend not to focus closely on what opposition parties are saying until election time.
Even if we’re exiting the last major wave of the virus and are on the path to it becoming endemic, the Government faces a treacherous path ahead. The public inquiry into the handling of the crisis will expose more failures than successes.
The Government will need to take measures to pay for the massive bills from Covid, the NHS backlog, social care reform and achieving net zero, while managing increasingly rebellious backbenchers.
Its future, like most governments, will largely depend on how fast the economy grows. The latest IMF forecast – that ours will be the fastest-growing advanced economy this year – might give it some succour, but our recession last year was also the deepest.
Following the report of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform, the Government has published consultations on eliminating red tape and reforming competition policy to help drive growth.
All to the good, but the effects of initiatives like those won’t be felt for some time. Voters will start feeling the effects of fiscal consolidation much sooner.