Labour should not be giving Boris Johnson a blank cheque on Covid restrictions | Chaminda Jayanetti | Opinion

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It’s a day that ends in ‘y’, so the Tories are split. The latest divide is over the government’s new Covid rules – specifically, the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants.

The 10pm curfew sums up the latest phase of the Conservative response to Covid. After the initial lockdown and then Prop Up Pret, we now have a shambles on every front – rising infections, falling economic protections, failing track and trace, a confused jumble of local lockdown measures that have no obvious effect, chaos on campus, and, worst of all, the distinct sense that nobody at the top really knows what is driving infections or where transmission is taking place.

The 10pm curfew is the epitome of a “do something” response to a problem that has loosed itself from the shackles of government understanding. There is no evidence to support the efficacy of the curfew. People leave the pubs and pile into the street and – worse – quite possibly into each other’s homes. There is an economic impact for no gain whatsoever. It is everything you expected a Boris Johnson government would do in a crisis.

Tory backbenchers are up in arms – but because the measure goes too far, rather than not far enough. With brains addled by reading too many Spectator columns, they increasingly cleave to the view that we must protect the most vulnerable while everyone else returns to normal. Nobody ever says quite how this is meant to happen – how elderly people and those at-risk are to be humanely locked away for months on end while everyone else goes back to getting plastered – but this is a political party whose thinking long since slipped free of reality.

But this split in the Tories means that Johnson’s 80-seat majority suddenly looks rather thin, at least on coronavirus votes. And that means leverage now lands in Labour’s unexpectant lap.

If the Tory rebellion against the tightening of lockdown measures is big enough to override the government majority, Johnson is left relying on opposition votes. A vote is reportedly planned on Monday on the 10pm curfew, and Labour has pledged to back it.

Labour’s argument is that if the measures fall, then there would be no restrictions left in place – “it’s an up-down, take it or leave it vote,” in Keir Starmer’s words.

That may be – but it also means that Johnson, who certainly does want restrictions in place, is essentially getting a free lunch off the Labour party.

It would be irresponsible and reckless for Labour, or any other party, to vote against the government on Covid measures just to inflict a defeat on the prime minister. But Labour has expressed plenty of disquiet about the government’s approach, and here is the chance to do something about it.

If the government needs Labour’s support, it makes sense for Labour to demand something in return. The Tories aren’t about to implement a Labour manifesto, clearly, but measures relating directly to the pandemic are a reasonable ask.

For example, Labour could demand more generous statutory sick pay, and/or a more extensive system of self-isolation payments. The financial incentive for people not to self-isolate is surely a key reason fewer than one in five people self-isolate after developing Covid symptoms – and why barely one in 10 do if they have been in contact with someone testing positive.

Fixing this would likely make far more difference to getting on top of the virus than shutting pubs and restaurants at 10pm, or even jacking up fines for non-compliance, given the low probability of getting caught.

Perhaps Monday’s vote on the 10pm curfew is too soon to realistically press a quid pro quo that requires extra government spending, especially now the Treasury has reverted to tight-fisted type.

But it would be a huge error for Labour to adopt an ongoing stance of cost-free cooperation on the occasions the government needs opposition support for its Covid measures to go through.

Starmer’s approach since becoming Labour leader has been to zero in on what’s necessary to win the next election. He has focused on establishing himself well in the public eye, matching the national mood, and playing to his strengths – namely, kicking the tyres on everything the government spouts, without necessarily opposing it.

Part of this is providing “constructive opposition” to the government on the pandemic – generally consisting of supporting its infection control measures while challenging it on delivery and its economic response.

In doing so, he has achieved marked success in terms of his own ratings, and is gradually detoxifying his party.

When the government’s majority holds, this is a low-cost approach. Labour’s abstention on the government’s move to shield British soldiers from war crimes investigations was an unedifying move that provoked justified anger. But its practical impact was limited – the government was going to win the vote regardless.

But when the government is not certain of winning, to unquestioningly vote for its Covid measures as part of a strategy to win in 2024 is to sacrifice the opportunity to improve things today.

It is true the government could play hardball. Johnson is not above using parliamentary deadlock to launch partisan attacks on Labour, regardless of the consequences to the country. But he must also know that his own MPs are running out of patience with his mishandling of the pandemic. Lose a succession of votes, and he’d start to resemble Theresa May.

If Labour can use its newfound leverage to force the government to improve its economic response in return for its infection control measures getting through, that would be a far more constructive form of opposition than an endless blank cheque of support. There is more to life than the next election.

Chaminda Jayanetti is a journalist who covers politics and public services

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Source: The Guardian
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