U.K.’s Boris Johnson Faces Revolt Over His Coronavirus Policy
U.K.’s Boris Johnson Faces Revolt Over His Coronavirus Policy
LONDON — Two days after abruptly announcing plans to put England back into a lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a mutiny on Monday from members of his Conservative Party, who said he went too far, and scalding criticism from opposition leaders, who said he acted too late to stem a second wave of the coronavirus.
Mr. Johnson’s decision, a reluctant reversal after weeks of stubbornly resisting a lockdown, seemed to please almost no one. His allies in the right-wing press have turned on him, as have disgruntled business leaders.
The about-face even reopened fault lines from the debate over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, as Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit leader, said he would rebrand his Brexit Party with a new name, Reform U.K., and a platform of opposing the lockdown.
A somber Mr. Johnson defended himself in Parliament, apologizing for the economic pain caused by the lockdown but insisting there was no alternative. At the current rate of infections and hospitalizations, he said, England’s hospitals would have to turn away patients within weeks.
“Doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die,” he said. “That sacred principle of care for anyone who needs it — whoever they are and whenever they need it — could be broken for the first time in our lives.”
The Labour Party’s leader, Keir Starmer, endorsed the lockdown. But he accused the prime minister of dithering for 40 days after his scientific advisers recommended taking this step — a delay that he claimed had cost lives.
Mr. Johnson’s now-defunct program of targeted restrictions, he said, “not only failed to stop the second wave, they been swept away by it.” Mr. Starmer called for a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown nearly three weeks ago.
The depth of Britain’s ordeal with the coronavirus was underscored by the news on Sunday that Prince William, the son of Prince Charles, and second in line for the throne, contracted the virus last spring, around the same time as his father.
Prince William did not disclose his diagnosis because he did not want to alarm the nation, according to the Sun newspaper, which first reported the story.
For all the criticism of Mr. Johnson, his latest plans are not likely to be derailed. While a handful of Conservative members of Parliament said they would oppose the lockdown measure when it comes up for a vote on Wednesday, the prime minister’s 80-seat majority, plus the seal of approval from the Labour Party, all but guarantees that it will be approved by the House of Commons.
Still, the swelling unrest in Conservative ranks, the rising strength of the opposition and the re-emergence of Mr. Farage as a threat from the right add up to a treacherous landscape for Mr. Johnson.
Even among some of his supporters, there was despair at the government’s inconsistency and failure to foresee predictable problems — and at the constant drumbeat of questions about its competence.
“The problem is if a narrative is established that he lacks a grip on the situation,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Most Conservative members of Parliament realize that the sine qua non of re-election is competence.”
Mr. Bale added that “if the opinion polls turn south very quickly,” Mr. Johnson “is going to begin to get into more nervous territory.”
Among the growing legion of malcontents are lawmakers from the north of the country, where the Conservatives won a critical number of parliamentary seats from the Labour Party last year. They fear that Mr. Johnson’s promise to “level up” the economy in their areas could be washed away by the economic tidal wave wrought by the pandemic.
Mr. Johnson had barely put behind him a bitter dispute with northern mayors over putting their cities, which have been hard hit by the virus, under targeted lockdowns. Several balked at what they said was the government’s insistence on reducing to 67 percent the amount of money it would pay for people who lose their jobs because of the restrictions.
Under the national lockdown, the government will extend a subsidy program that pays 80 percent of the wages of those people — a concession that the mayors said illustrated that the government does not treat the north the same as the south.
“Why did it take a lockdown that affected London for them to address these issues?” Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said in an interview. “Why didn’t it get addressed when it was just Manchester?”
Conservatives have a litany of other objections — that the lockdown is a death knell for the economy, an infringement of civil liberties and proof that the government lacks a coherent strategy for getting past the pandemic.
“As we drift further into an authoritarian coercive state, the only legal mechanism left open to me is to vote against that legislation,” said Charles Walker, vice chairman of the influential 1922 committee of Conservative lawmakers. “The people of this country will never, ever forgive the political class for criminalizing parents seeing children.”
Another Conservative lawmaker, Philip Davies, asked Mr. Johnson how many lost jobs and failed businesses were “a price worth paying to continue pursuing this failed strategy of lockdowns and arbitrary restrictions.”
The chaotic nature of the announcement added to the misgivings. Mr. Johnson convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday after internal deliberations leaked late Friday. Then Downing Street botched the rollout, delaying a news conference almost three hours, causing it to run into the BBC’s popular variety show, “Strictly Come Dancing.”
Mr. Johnson’s reversal was particularly embarrassing because he spent more than two weeks deriding Mr. Starmer for demanding the circuit breaker shutdown, which turned out to be half the length of the one the prime minister ultimately adopted. As late as Friday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, defended the “focused, localized approach” over what he called the “blunt tool” of a national lockdown.
“You build resentment from those loyal supporters who have only recently defended a government policy they were told was inviolable, only to have to eat their words a few days later,” Mr. Bale said.
Mr. Johnson, he said, should not underestimate the threat posed by Reform U.K., as the party’s positions could appeal to Conservative voters. In addition to the lockdown, Mr. Farage, who also once headed the U.K. Independence Party, is likely to call for tougher immigration rules and oppose policies he deems as “politically correct.”
While Reform U.K.’s prospects will be handicapped by Britain’s electoral system — which disadvantages small parties because of its first-past-the-post voting system — it could still have an impact by draining support from the Conservatives.
“If the Reform party manages to scare Conservative members of Parliament as much as U.K. Independence Party and the Brexit Party did,” Mr. Bale said, “it will be significant.”