The Tories are divided over whether to prioritise health or the economy, and the Prime Minister is siding with neither faction, but flirting with both.
Is the Covid-19 pandemic the start of a new era, or merely a painful interruption of the old one? The Conservative Party is split in its answer, and its fractious tribes reach these two conclusions through a variety of different routes.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has used his private meetings with Conservative MPs not to advance his credentials as a future party leader, but to deliver an altogether bleaker message: that the economic activity lost during this period will not return. The British economy will be suffering from its own form of “long Covid” for some time. The biggest headache, as far as Sunak is concerned, is that the government’s debt will be more than 100 per cent of GDP for the foreseeable future, but the complications extend much further.
The Sunak economic remedy involves an immediate reduction of financial support for businesses, no second lockdown and a tax-raising budget sooner rather than later. The coronavirus crisis has robbed Sunak of the opportunity to use his first budget to hike taxes long before a general election, as chancellors tend to do, and both he and Treasury officials are keen to catch up as soon as possible.
For other Conservatives, the problem with lockdowns is as much social as it is economic: they bridle against the infringement of liberty and extensive involvement of the state in people’s lives. “It’s not a question of whether we can afford it,” one backbencher told me, “it’s a question of whether a Conservative Party should be locking people in their homes and forcing businesses to shut.”
For a third group, the central challenge is that the crisis is without a clear end. They note that it took the best part of a decade for medical science to produce an Ebola vaccine, and that vaccines for HIV/Aids or Sars have yet to arise. Palliative treatments have hugely advanced the care of patients with HIV/Aids, but they were the work of decades, not years.
Is it fair, some Tory MPs wonder, to ask people to spend years socially distancing from one another when there is no guarantee of a medical breakthrough? “We have to talk about quality of life,” says one veteran Conservative. “Is it really in anyone’s interests for an 87-year-old to spend the last years of their life locked up, unable to visit their family or attend a wedding, without a clear end date?”
All three groups, whatever route they take, reach the same conclusion: that the country needs to live with the new disease, not hide from it. Only a loud minority believes that there should be no restrictions on anything – in Westminster they are more commonly found not in the House of Commons but in the House of Lords, where among Conservatives there is a sizeable group of what one peer derides as “flat-earthers”.
Most think that some form of restrictions are necessary and a greater level of …read more
Source:: New Statesman