Boris Johnson having to self-isolate is the last thing the government needs right now

The prime minister’s self-isolation will bring annoying logistical headaches, including making it harder to communicate with his aides and ministers

Andrew Grice
Monday 16 November 2020 13:50
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Boris Johnson told to self-isolate after coming into contact with Covid-positive MP

They used to say in Conservative circles that Boris Johnson was a lucky general. Lucky to have Theresa May and then Jeremy Corbyn as his opponents. Lucky to have good lieutenants like Dominic Cummings, who “made” Johnson at the 2016 EU referendum and last December’s general election.

History will now judge Cummings in a more nuanced way after his dramatic exit from Downing Street. And Johnson’s luck has definitely run out. Coronavirus would have tested any government and prime minister to the limits; former holders of his job thank God it didn’t happen on their watch. It almost claimed Johnson’s life. 

Now the curse of Covid-19 has struck again: he must self-isolate in his flat above 11 Downing Street for another 10 days after Tory MP Lee Anderson, who attended a meeting at No 10 last Thursday, tested positive.

To describe this as bad timing is an understatement; it really is the last thing Johnson needed. He had intended to be highly active and visible during what was already going to be a busy two-week period, even before last week's psychodrama. The departure of Cummings and his sidekick Lee Cain means Johnson needs to steady the ship, move on and show that this much-trumpeted “reset” is more than just another unfulfilled headline.

Johnson’s incarceration will bring annoying logistical headaches, making it harder to communicate with his aides and ministers when everything must be done by Zoom or phone. His most important decision-making meetings will be with Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, about the government-wide spending review to be unveiled on 25 November.

Johnson insisted he will have “plenty more to say by Zoom and other means of electronic communication” during his isolation, but his ability to do that will be curtailed. A long-planned speech unveiling a 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” is due on Wednesday. 

Johnson will have to decide whether to make his speech virtually, issue a paper or postpone an event that has now taken on greater importance. Focusing on climate change is one way Johnson intends to soften the harsh face of his administration in the post-Cummings era. He hopes it is also his route to a decent working relationship with the president-elect Joe Biden.

Johnson allies are irritated by suggestions from the Vote Leave gang that he will lose his focus on “levelling up” the poorest regions without them at his side. He is due to meet Tory MPs from the Northern Research Group to reassure them their red-turned-blue-wall seats are at the top of his agenda.  Although Cummings ensured a focus on life beyond the M25, Johnson does not really need reminding that the next election will be decided in the Tories’ new territory. Announcements are also planned on education and skills over the next two weeks.

Johnson will likely continue to chair daily meetings about the coronavirus.  He will begin work on the restrictions that will apply in England when its lockdown ends on 2 December. The PM is increasingly bullish about a return to a local and regional system, though it could be a tougher one than existed before the lockdown. Johnson will also have to say something about the sensitive issue of Christmas. Tomorrow week was pencilled in for decision day. 

The prime minister will have to decide whether to let another minister announce the new restrictions in the Commons or do so virtually himself. His team is exploring ways for him to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday as usual. Although self-isolating MPs can ask questions from their homes, current rules say minsters must be at the dispatch box.

Johnson’s other preoccupation will be negotiations on an EU trade deal, which resume in Brussels today. This will not be greatly affected by his isolation. He will keep in close touch with David Frost, his chief negotiator, and, if necessary, “meet” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, with whom his recent talks have been via video link. Johnson will soon have to decide whether to make concessions to get a deal over the line. But he might not want to do that so quickly after Cummings’s exit, which would risk cries of “betrayal” from hardline Brexiteers.

At least Johnson is not ill, as he was during his period of isolation at the end of March, when he felt the politician’s desire to pretend to be superman. Today he could claim to be as “fit as a butcher’s dog” and “bursting with antibodies” in a typically bouncy video message. But his setback will inevitably prompt questions about just how “Covid secure” Downing Street really is.

Johnson, of course, is making a point he is sticking to the rules. His need to be above suspicion is an unfortunate reminder that Cummings did not stick to them during his disastrous trip to County Durham. And a reminder that moving on from the Cummings era will be easier said than done.

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