How a conservative politician feels about wearing a mask tells you something about what worries him most: his constituents or the good opinion of his colleagues. Ordering the public to wear masks on public transport and in stores is extremely popular in the country in general, but it is fiercely resisted in parts of the Conservative Party.
A Conservative politician jokes that colleagues who feel nervous about their re-election prospects are easily identifiable because they feel pressured to wear a mask in the House of Commons. After Sajid Javid said he would wear a face covering on days when the Commons is crowded, another conservative texted me to tell me that the Health Secretary has clearly given up on hopes of ever becoming party leader.
Opposition politicians are not free from divisions over Covid-19, but they are less resentful. Among Liberal Democrat MPs, there are serious concerns that a range of illiberal measures have become an accepted part of how governments are responding to both new illnesses and routine winter pressure on the NHS. But it was only among conservatives that the question of how to deal with the pandemic sparked an organized response, in the form of the Covid-19 Research Group.
Within the Conservative Party, positions on the issue are so firmly entrenched that it is worth embarrassing each other in the national media to express them – like Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, the no doubt did when he suggested that he and his fellow Conservative MPs do not need to wear masks in the House because of their “brotherly” relationships. It amounted to an outright rejection of Javid’s call for more people to cover up.
Conservative divisions are more painful because it is the party that has had to deviate the most from its values ââto face the crisis. The UK’s extraordinary borrowing capacity has been used to subsidize closed businesses and pay the wages of millions of workers on leave. Much of the private sector has been ordered to shut down by government decree. While these policies cause more than the occasional tingling of pain among Liberal Democrats, they cause great anguish for many Conservatives.
The pandemic economy is a particular source of irritation for Rishi Sunak, who other ministers joke has dubbed fiscal conservatism in part as penance for his extraordinary largesse during the crisis. A Tory MP recently compared the hypocrisy of the Chancellor’s public urging his party to regain its fiscal conservatism to a televangelist secretly having a number of cases, while several cabinet members believe Sunak is making a fatal mistake in giving the priority to a balanced budget rather than a decrease. taxes.
Sunak’s allies, of course, reject the idea that his pursuit of fiscal rectitude is some kind of psychological blockage. They fear that after extensively using the firepower of the Treasury to support the economy, and after an election campaign in which the party made a number of promises on funding various sectors of the state, the conservatives have lost touch for saying “no” to asking for more money. The worry is that by the time of the election they will be caught in a battle with Labor over which party is best placed to spend money on public services. The Conservatives fear that this is an argument that only the opposition can win.
What unites most conservatives, whatever their stance on masks or public spending, also unites the opposition: they want the end of the Covid-19 era and the return of “normal” politics. For Sunak, that means going back to the old conservative argument about taxes and spending. Its budgets and tax rules are designed to impose restrictions now to create room for a tax cut budget later, before the election, to sharpen the old dividing lines between Tories and Labor.
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Keir Starmer’s team also wants to move on from a debate over how to deal with the pandemic, where Labor has struggled to find a distinctive position other than asking for more restrictions and new subsidies. Starmer believes Sunak has damaged the Tories’ old line of attack that a Labor victory means higher taxes and that no financial trickery until the next election can fix it. Labor leader is keen to focus his arguments on jobs, climate change and crime as the country pulls out of pandemic restrictions and he turns his attention to what the UK will look like by the next election , which are due to take place in 2024.
There are reasons to be hopeful. The lesson from Israel – among the first countries to be vaccinated – is that an alarming increase in cases declined once booster shots began to be given in significant numbers. It can also happen in the UK, as boosters are given to boost immunity levels.
But while it could mean the nation can avoid another lockdown or other restrictions, it would also mean that one of the Tories’ biggest problems with Covid-19 – the extra cost – will stay with us. Perpetual reminders and a new disease rampant alongside the flu mean higher public spending and even more strain on health systems. The two big English parties want the age of Covid-19 to be an interruption of normal business which is now ending. The harsh truth is that the legacy of the pandemic is likely to present an ongoing challenge for all politicians.