The government right now, even to its supporters, appears trapped between a rock and a hard place. The logic underpinning its regulations is increasingly illusive and incomprehensible to the British public and as a result compliance is rapidly declining. One week we are told to go out and eat in pubs and restaurants to fuel the economy; the next that this can be extremely dangerous, although only if done after 10 pm. One doesn’t need an epidemiology degree to sense that government policy departed from the science long ago. Compounding the emergent resistance to illogical rules is a growing cynicism about the ability of the government to fulfil its promises on coronavirus. Plans for a ‘moon shot’ testing scheme seem as distant as ever, and just today we have learned that a vaccine, according to the Royal Society, may not be the silver bullet we were praying for.
All of which is to say that the government is suffering from an ever-expanding credibility gap. Day by day the confidence of the British public in our government and the Conservatives to effectively manage coronavirus is being chipped away. Like a dripping tap, the fear is that No. 10 will not recognise this until it is all too late. A change of strategy, unless truly revolutionary, will not be enough to persuade the majority that we are back on course. What is really needed is a revamp at the highest levels of government to reassure the public that those steering the ship of state are indeed the best and the brightest the right has to offer.
No one could even convince themselves that this is presently the case. With a few exceptions, such as the reliably impressive Michael Gove and the right’s new darling, Rishi Sunak, the cabinet is a depressing catalogue of mediocrities and also-rans, retained for loyalty rather than capability. What Boris needs to do now, and urgently, is to refresh the face of our party to the country with voices of sanity and experience.
No one on the Conservative backbenches personifies this better at present than Jeremy Hunt. The veteran Health Secretary and present chair of the Health Select Committee has been a constant voice of reason throughout this pandemic. Refusing to politicise our current environment, he has expertly walked the line between loyalty to the government and relentlessly holding it to account on a multitude of related issues, most notably testing. In doing so he has commanded support from all sides of the house for his knowledge and eloquence. Observing him cross examine Matt Hancock is like watching a master school a pupil on their homework.
I cannot help but draw uncanny parallels between Hunt in 2020 and an unlikely hero of the last century; Winston Churchill in 1939. Both men were supposedly over the hill, both obsessed with issues (health and Hitler, consecutively) that featured low on their government’s priorities. Both were isolated mavericks who were shown, in time, to have had the right idea all along. Neville Chamberlain, for all his many faults, understood that the man who had foreseen the threat that Nazi Germany posed to western civilisation would be invaluable in defeating that danger. Boris would do well to learn the same lesson and bring in from the cold our longest-serving Health Secretary and one of the most credible voices in the modern Conservative Party.
Who better, after all, to take the helm that the man who controlled it for almost 6 years, who knows the strengths and weaknesses of our healthcare institutions probably better than any serving politician? Of course there will be naysayers on the left who will attempt to exploit his history in that post for political gain. We must simply ignore them; any negative preconceptions the public may have will be rapidly shattered once we have genuine authority back in that crucial role. Matt Hancock, conscientious if singularly uninspiring, should replace the national joke that is Gavin Williamson at education. Boris could bag two birds with one stone and signal overnight that the government understands the quagmire it has stumbled into and is acting boldly to get back on track. Will the Prime Minister have the vision and the humility to restore the man he so unfairly ousted? One can only hope.