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Saturday, 02 July 2022
Britain’s Covid Politics
James Denselow

In many countries across the world a political leader is seemingly permanent and forever, capable of maintaining power despite hell or highwater. In Syria, for example, there is no prospect of Bashar al-Assad being deposed after over two decades in power regardless of the vast consequences of the conflict he has presided over for the Syrian population. Meanwhile in Cameron Paul Biya has been serving as president for 41 years.  

Back in the UK, however, the politics of Covid are threatening the tenure of both the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Kier Starmer. If you were to dramatically oversimplify events, you could say that whilst some world leaders and senior political figures cling to power no matter what; that in the UK the Prime Minister may lose his job because of a party and his chief opponent may lose his because of a takeaway.  

What madness is this? It could be asked, but the roots of both issues are far more fundamental and far reaching. Do those who make our laws have a special responsibility to observe them themselves? And does the sacrifice made by those during the exceptional period of Covid restrictions make actions from the countries political leaders stand out more as scandals?  

There has arguably never been as many restrictions placed on the lives of Britons than during the height of the pandemic in the country’s history. Forcing people to stay at home, denying them the ability to perform the functions of normal life without huge restriction and being willing to issue fines and punishments for those who broke the rules. Meanwhile an estimated 175,000 Brits have died of the disease, although the countries rapid development and rollout of vaccines allowed it to exit restrictions earlier than most.  

The scandals that have engulfed both the Prime Minister’s office and now the Opposition’s have the ability to remove both men from their positions. Sir Kier Starmer, the Labour opposition leader, gave a statement this week to the effect that he would resign if found in breach of the rules by the police and issued a ‘fixed penalty notice’. The Prime Minister has already been issued one of these notices for a birthday party event at Number 10 but has not quit. Johnson put out a statement that “I have paid the fine and I once again offer a full apology”. 

Boris Johnson is the first sitting British Prime Minister to have been found to have broken the law. However, the investigations to parties and other lockdown breaking events at the heart of Government has not finished and there is the very real prospect of more fines for the Prime Minister to come. Over fifty such fines have been handed out to individuals at Number 10 so far and a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, is promising to publish a wider report into events once the police investigations have come to an end.  

This drip drip of scandal has dominated British politics for months now, with the war in Ukraine one of the few events large enough to displace it and allow Johnson’s supporters to argue that the country needs to move on and focus on “issues of great importance to the nation”, as one Cabinet member put it. The Conservative Party’s system of replacing its leader requires 15% of its MPs to write to an influential party committee declaring no confidence in them. 54 MPs would be required to trigger this process for Mr Johnson but that has not happened yet despite the Party getting battered in the local elections at the start of May. One reason, many speculate, that sufficient letters have not gone in is that the party lacks an obvious replacement as Prime Minister as well as Johnson’s previous record in successful electioneering and winning despite the odds.  

Nevertheless, if Sir Kier is not given a fixed penalty notice, then the opposition will continue to push on the issue every time new evidence of wrongdoing emerges from Number 10. If Sir Kier is given a fine and resigns, then the contrast in leadership could place Mr Johnson in an even worse position that a new and untainted leader of the Labour party would look to exploit further. Again, all of this scandal is happening not just against the backdrop of the carnage in Ukraine, but also the country’s worst cost of living crisis in a generation. Britain’s strange Covid politics looks like it has many twists and turns coming up.

BY: James Denselow