Did Boris Johnson do something incredibly clever in December of last year and did Sir Keir Starmer do something extremely stupid? You might think so if you look at graphs of their approval ratings. It is to around about then that we can trace the flip in their fortunes that has since seen the Tory leader bounce back from awful ratings and the Labour leader descend from impressive ones to a dismal score. The effect has been to deepen angst about its prospects within the opposition and heighten Tory hubris.
The story of Sir Keir is an encouraging rise in public approval in the first half of his tenure as Labour leader followed by a plunge. He peaked last autumn when he was the most highly rated leader of the opposition since Tony Blair. Then a decline set in that has steepened over the past six months. One recent poll had Sir Keir as badly thought of as Jeremy Corbyn at the same point in his leadership of the Labour party. It is rare for an opposition leader to shoot up like a firework and tumble down like a stick in such a sudden fashion.
His Tory rival has been on an even more stomach-churning rollercoaster. Mr Johnson enjoyed highly positive ratings in the early stages of the crisis as the British public, like voters in most countries hit by the pandemic, “rallied to the flag” and prayed its leader knew what he was doing. His ratings went deeply negative over the summer and autumn of last year as evidence accumulated that he didn’t know what he was doing and the government lurched from debacle to reverse to fiasco. The public’s opinion of Mr Johnson began to turn as we approached the end of the year. When pollsters asked who would make best prime minister, Sir Keir was well ahead in the latter half of 2020. Now he is badly behind the incumbent.
It’s not just the jabs, it is the cash injections. Tory popularity is also down to the huge amount of state money they have thrown at the crisis
So what was the Tory leader doing so right back in December and what was the Labour leader doing so wrong? The answers are nothing and nothing. The leader of the opposition was advocating tougher Covid restrictions to curb a lethal second wave, which proved to be the correct call. The prime minister was insisting that everyone could have a “normal Christmas”, which was a terrible call. Far more significant than anything either of them did was a brief procedure conducted by May Parsons, a matron at University Hospital, Coventry. On 8 December, she stuck a needle into the arm of Margaret Keenan who became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine. About to turn 91, she described it as the “best early birthday present I could wish for because I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends”.
There are all sorts of complex theories seeking to elucidate why the Tories enjoy a substantial lead in the polls, but the simplest explanation is almost certainly the most important one. Let us call it the Keenan effect. Every day for many months, several hundred thousand people have had something done to them that makes the great majority feel better about life and more optimistic about the future. “They know this [vaccination] is the responsibility of the government,” remarks one senior Tory MP. “So it is not then a surprise that the government has become a lot more popular.” Labour MPs echo that thought when they lament that nothing they say about government sleaze or incompetence can penetrate the vaccine euphoria that has inoculated the Tories against many of the normal rules of politics. We can debate how much credit is genuinely due to ministers for the success of the immunisation programme, but there’s no disputing that it has made many voters feel much more positive about the government and much more willing to forgive its performance failings and character flaws.
More dispiritingly for Labour, things may get better for the Tories before they turn for the worse. A million people booked for a jab on Tuesday last week – a one-day record – when eligibility was extended to those aged between 25 and 29. A decision to delay the full relaxation of Covid restrictions scheduled for 21 June won’t go down well with a noisy faction of Tory MPs, but probably won’t have much impact on the government’s popularity when the majority of voters are on the cautious side.
It’s not just the jabs, it is also the cash injections. Another major component of Tory popularity is the huge amount of state money they have thrown at the crisis, a sum that will ultimately exceed £400bn. Some of that cash has been lost to fraudulent exploitation of business support schemes. A lot has been squandered on equipment that proved unfit for use and systems that failed to deliver value for money. The safety nets for workers have had holes, especially gaping ones for some of the self-employed. But the cash splashed has rescued businesses that might otherwise have collapsed and saved jobs that might otherwise have been lost. You only have to look at Rishi Sunak’s approval ratings to see that a lot of voters are grateful. As one Tory drily remarked to me: “It is not hard to be a popular chancellor when you are giving away shedloads of money.”
The longer term worry for Tories and the glimmer of hope for Labour is that none of this can last for ever. Vaccine euphoria will wear off. Furlough schemes will wind up. The Treasury, rather than shovelling money out of the door, will start clawing it back. Indeed, that process is already starting. These are reasons to think that post-pandemic politics will be rather tougher for the government and more promising for the opposition.
For all Mr Johnson’s claims that there will be no return to Cameron-era cuts, the spending envelope outlined by Mr Sunak in his most recent budget is an austere one. We have had early harbingers of what the Treasury intends and the trouble it will provoke in the miserly 1% pay rise offered to nurses, the opposition by Tory MPs to the savaging of the aid budget and the Treasury’s refusal to find meaningful extra funding for schools. “That has given Labour an issue,” notes one former Tory cabinet minister. Not least because it triggered the resignation of the prime minister’s “catch-up” chief after he was offered less than a tenth of the sum that Sir Kevan Collins judged necessary to address Covid-disrupted schooling. There will be further contentions when the government attempts to reverse the uplift to universal credit and other relief measures. With a crunchy spending review due towards the end of the year, the chancellor’s allies claim he must hold the line against demands for money for fear of encouraging more of them.
For all Johnson’s claims there will be no return to Cameron-era cuts, the spending outlined by Sunak in his most recent budget is austere
That foreshadows many bitter arguments in which the Treasury will protest that extra funds can’t be afforded while pressure groups, spending departments and MPs will insist that more money must be found. The health service presents the government with an especially acute Covid-legacy challenge. Large numbers of people have had treatments deferred or are suffering from conditions, including cancer, which have grown more serious because they haven’t been diagnosed in a timely way. The latest data reveals that the number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England has topped 5 million, an all-time record. Internal government estimates suggest that it could cost up to £40bn on top of the existing NHS budget to clear the backlog and get waiting times back to manageable levels. The extra for the health service so far allocated by the Treasury is a tiny fraction of that.
After experiencing a pandemic that exposed lethal frailties in how Britain looks after its elderly citizens, we are still waiting for the government’s long overdue plan for reforming social care. There’s no mystery about why it has failed to produce one. There is ongoing wrangling between Number 10, the relevant departments and the Treasury about how to fund it.
Tories representing their recently won seats in the north and the Midlands look for the “building back better” slogan to be backed with serious cash. Tories in the party’s traditional tribal heartlands in the more affluent parts of England can already be heard grumbling that efforts to reduce regional inequalities mustn’t come at the expense of their constituents.
Post-pandemic politics will see the exposure of Tory divisions while many voters are likely to feel let down when the government cannot meet the large expectations encouraged by Mr Johnson. That ought to offer opportunities for the opposition. First, though, Labour will have to get through this miserable period for the party without tearing itself apart.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer