Boris Johnson announced Friday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus after earlier in the week placing a series of tighter restrictions on UK citizens to fight the pandemic. Yet, after only belatedly imposing such measures, he is under growing pressure in what could be a ‘make-or-break’ period for his prime ministership after his previous high-risk, outlier approach didn’t deliver the results intended.
Voters appear, for now, to still give Johnson the benefit of the doubt with his handling of the outbreak. Take the example of a poll released last week from Ipsos Mori which found 49 per cent of people think the government is tackling the crisis well whereas 35 per cent believe it is handling it badly, while the prime minister personally is also given the benefit of the doubt by 47 per cent to 38 per cent.
Public opinion aside, the big advantage Johnson has, right now, is the significant House of Commons majority he won in December. The timing of that election was very fortuitous for the prime minister, given it could have easily been postponed till this year, when Johnson would have then been in a far tighter political spot running a minority government in what may yet turn out to be the nation’s biggest crisis since 1945, including a potentially deep recession to boot.
While Johnson is currently at peak power, he could yet come crashing back down to earth with a potential resurgence of political and economic uncertainty.
This political dominance ensured passage of a far-reaching coronavirus bill in Parliament in recent days. And this despite much concern from opposition parties over the sweeping nature over the new powers, and their intended duration for two years, despite Johnson’s insistence that the tide will turn on the crisis in three months (a timeframe that experts like the UK’s chief science officer and chief medical officer have refused to explicitly endorse).
Yet, while Johnson may currently be at the peak of his political powers, there is no doubting the risky, outlying approach that he is took toward the crisis in recent weeks which could yet backfire on him. The UK’s strategy, designed to spread the outbreak over a longer period and reduce peak levels of hospitalisation, was out of kilter with countries such as South Korea and China which imposed restrictive measures much faster.
The danger for Johnson is that, while there may be short-run advantages for the economy, the number of cases may surge anyway in coming weeks overwhelming the National Health Service. If so, support for his approach and his leadership could erode fast.
Risk-taking streak in political leadership
This strategy, which the prime minister insists is based on scientific advice, also underlines what appears to be a strong risk-taking streak in his style of political leadership. Whether one thinks he is a political genius or clown, his period in office has seen a remarkable series of political gambles of which this may be only the latest.
These range from his ‘scorched earth’ approach to Brexit which saw, for instance, a high-stakes decision last Autumn to prorogue parliament over-ruled by the Supreme Court. And also his push for a pre-Christmas election, the first December ballot for a century, at a time of extraordinary political volatility.
So far his gambles have generally paid off, including his big win in December. Yet, the coronavirus may be his toughest opponent yet in the highest stakes battle of them all: life and death itself.
While the outcome of this latest risk-taking may not be known for weeks to come, what is already clear is that it will have a displacement effect upon his wider political agenda for 2020.
The next phase of Brexit that could become the most high-profile political casualty. While London and Brussels have begun negotiations recently on a potential EU-UK trade deal, talks have been postponed because of the corona crisis and indeed the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has become infected by the virus, while his UK counterpart Martin Frost has gone into self-isolation with potential symptoms.
Even before the outbreak began, the ten-month period from March to December was not likely to be nearly long enough to agree more than what Barnier has called a “bare bones” UK-EU trade agreement, and not the kind of deep trade deal promised by some Brexiteers in 2016. Yet, Johnson has refused so far to countenance a transition period extension.
The probability of a UK recession
This threatens what even Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage has called the likelihood of a new crisis by the Summer at which time both sides need to decide if there will be an extended transition into 2021. So there is growing pressure on Johnson, especially with the probability of a UK recession this year, to avoid the threat of a new ‘cliff-edge’ in negotiations and what would, in effect, be the threat of a no-deal Brexit raising its head again in second half of 2020.
Taken overall, this all underlines how much the coronavirus has the potential to reshape UK politics in coming months. While Johnson is currently at peak power, he could yet come crashing back down to earth with a potential resurgence of political and economic uncertainty, despite his big election victory only last December.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics