A third national lockdown would once have been the end of Boris Johnson’s career

The prime minister always seems to act too slowly, says John Rentoul – yet the British public still give him the benefit of the doubt

John Rentoul
Monday 04 January 2021 21:43
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Boris Johnson announces a new national lockdown in England

When Boris Johnson announced the second national lockdown at Halloween, some MPs thought that it would be the end of his time as prime minister if he had to order a third lockdown later. 

So no wonder he started his address to the nation tonight by claiming that the government’s policy was working – until the new variant of coronavirus came along. That meant the lockdown cycle had to start again, but he was keen to emphasise that this time was different because this time there was a way out. 

In a pattern that we now know extremely well, he spent some time – after delivering the sombre news that schools would close and that shielding is back – sketching out the radiant future just over the horizon of the current crisis, thanks to the brilliance of British science and the wonders of the vaccines. 

Part of that pattern is the kind of overpromising that virtually guarantees under-delivery. This time it was that, “if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails”, Britain will be able to give first vaccinations to everyone over 70, all health and care workers, and all the clinically vulnerable by mid-February. Except that some pettifogging adviser had obviously added another line to the statement, pointing out that there is a two- to three-week time lag between receiving the jab and developing immunity. 

So that’s the beginning of March, then. And in any case it is assuming there are no more mutations of the virus to throw those assumptions off track, just as all previous assumptions have been thrown off. It was only this morning that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was saying he was “very worried” by the South African variant because it may require the vaccines to be re-engineered. 

Yet the prime minister continues to be given the benefit of the doubt by the British public. He always seems to act too slowly – and yet he does so for what seem to be good reasons. This time, even if we leave to one side the evidence of cases and hospitalisations rising throughout December, Johnson reacted slowly to the discovery on 18 December that the new variant seemed to spread more easily. 

And yet Keir Starmer, the person with the greatest interest in getting in first, held back from calling for schools to be closed until today, a few hours before the prime minister’s statement. 

Starmer has on previous occasions outsmarted Johnson by urging him to do things some time before he did them – most notably when he called for a circuit-breaker lockdown two and a half weeks before Johnson announced “Lockdown II”. But this time Starmer validated the prime minister in delaying, as they both agreed that closing schools should be the last resort. 

So neither Johnson’s delay nor the draconian nature of the restrictions – eventually and reluctantly imposed – is likely to bring on the often-foretold end of his premiership. 

Indeed, the anti-lockdowners among Conservative MPs – who once threatened that their leader would be “out by Christmas” – seem to have fallen a little quiet recently, as the new variant has taken the second-wave scenario that they once dismissed as a scare story on to a new and all-too-real level. 

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