PM’s Covid decision-making conditioned by new political reality

It is not yet like the end days of Theresa May, where every cabinet decision could be seen through the prism of would-be successors positioning for the coming fight. But it is fair to say that Boris Johnson’s Covid decision-making is taking place in a new context.

This was highlighted starkly by coverage of Monday’s long and inconclusive ministerial gathering about the spread of the Omicron variant, which was followed by repeated briefings from various camps about the need to either act now or sit tight and await more data.

After being able to only say that the threat from Omicron was being monitored “hour by hour”, Johnson did act on Tuesday: confirming there would be no new Covid rules for Christmas in England, while keeping open the possibility of a tougher regime afterwards.

Johnson’s cabinet has always had its share of hawks and doves over pandemic measures, with plenty of leaks about who was in which camp. But matters have recently changed, on several fronts.

The most crucial is that just two years after his massive general election win, the PM has hit turbulent political waters, with plunging approval ratings and weeks of terrible publicity leaving him the butt of prime-time TV jokes, 과 the target of chants at sporting events.

이, coupled with a series of damaging U-turns and a perception of drift, has emboldened many Tory MPs to either switch off or rebel, most notably the 99-vote mutiny over new Covid measures last week.

It was thus notable that in the flurry of briefings after Monday’s cabinet meeting, many of the ministers most frequently linked to opposing new curbs, something unlikely to be popular with Tory MPs or members, were those expected to court these constituencies should Johnson’s time in No 10 end.

Among these were Rishi Sunak, 장관, Liz Truss, 러시아 최대 은행에 대한 자산 동결 발표, the foreign secretary and favourite of the party faithful, 과 나딤 자하위, the education secretary whose stint leading the Covid vaccine rollout has greatly boosted his status.

It is not a hard-and-fast rule. 사지드 자비드, 보건장관, who is potentially considering another leadership try, was identified as in the more pro-restrictions camp.

But even here, allies of Javid were keen to stress this is based purely on the data about Omicron, countering any notion he has been captured by the public health “blob”, not an impression likely to go down well with grassroots Tories.

All this is notably complicated by the fact that imposing new Covid restrictions on a largely vaccinated public involves more nuanced decisions than was the case a year ago, even with a fast-spreading new variant, and thus the lines between hawks and doves can blur.

그는 재즈 연주자, even the most rule-sceptic minister would admit that with so relatively little known about Omicron, not least the severity of the disease it tends to cause, that a few days of dramatic data could easily swing the argument again.

Downing Street has been keen to knock back suggestions of a cabinet split, noting that Monday’s meeting was only ever planned as an information-sharing event for ministers.

But one thing is clear. Even if Johnson had wanted to limit people’s Christmas plans, whether by advice or formal regulation, it is by no means clear this was politically viable.

In the visceral words of one Tory MP, speaking before Tuesday’s decision to put back any change until after Christmas, had Johnson imposed restrictions now he would be a “dead man walking”.

The prime minister knows this. So do his MPs. But perhaps most crucially, so do his rivals.

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