JUST LAST WEEKEND Jeremy Hunt rather made a fool of himself. Going on GB News he had the shameless audacity to claim that had he been Prime Minister he would have avoided Boris Johnson’s lockdowns (essentially by using track and trace – which was not even in place to cope with the tsunami of numbers it would have faced). I wrote about his claim here.
The pushback on social media was spontaneous and coruscating. I saw nobody who posted a comment take him at his word or believe him.
What was encouraging about Hunt’s attempt to rewrite the narrative of his behaviour was that a clear calculation by him and others has been made; there’s a recognition the public mood around lockdowns has changed.
Now, as the numbers exposing the damage done by lockdowns are reported on a weekly basis, he is in danger of being on the wrong side of history and needs a helluva quickstep to reposition.
He’s not the only politician to be doing this. I noticed a few weeks back one Sir Keir Starmer doing the same. This behaviour tells you the likes of Hunt and Starmer are now on the back foot about their respective roles, and both are keen to sound like they were overtly critical of Johnson’s lockdowns. This would be a travesty of the truth.
I thought in all fairness to Jeremy Hunt I should take the hairdryer to Keir Starmer too.
A great deal has been written by commentators about the failures of Johnson, Hancock, the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, and Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty – but I also happen to believe when we needed an opposition most, it was posted missing. Keir Starmer did not do his job of pressing the Government enough, holding it to scrutiny and thus making it accountable – unless you believe demanding it does more of the same as exposing it to criticism.
Quite the reverse, Starmer and his team were in-part responsible for Johnson embracing lockdowns without fear of a parliamentary defeat because Her Majesty’s Official Opposition pressed for the lockdowns to be sooner, harder and longer. There was no upside for Johnson to have doubts, to recoil from them or look to Sweden – all the pressure was to look to China and what was being done in Italy and Spain – and Starmer’s demands that we do the same.
This is not to make excuses for Johnson, but it is to remind everyone that all we had opposing the lockdowns were a few backbenchers with the odds stacked against them. We did not have the Opposition being at least sceptical. This was a huge weakness in our democratic system of checks and balances. There was no check, there was no balance against lockdowns.
Given that I have already provided a flavour of what Jeremy Hunt was actually saying so we might not forget, it is only fair that I also give a small sample of what Sir Keir Starmer was saying too.
On 13 October 2020 the BBC reported the Labour leader calling for a short lockdown or “circuit-breaker” in England of two to three weeks to bring the rising rate of Covid under control. With such pressure bearing down on the Prime Minister, Laura Kuenssberg was asking “Can Johnson hold out against more restrictions?” Starmer said his lockdown proposal would mean “all pubs, bars and restaurants would be closed”.
On 18 December 2020 the Northern Echo reported Starmer calling for the Prime Minister to restrict numbers mixing over Christmas so as to avoid a third lockdown. Starmer told the Echo, “In Wales, for example, they brought it down to two households, that seems a step in the right direction, might want to even talk about the numbers within the households. “ The Prime Minister eventually caved in to the pressure mounting on him – partly led by Starmer – and the Christmas of 2020 was infamously heavily restricted. But by the New Year, guess who was calling for another lockdown…
In 3 January 2021 Starmer was jumping the shark, calling for another lockdown when Johnson was still resisting. The Guardian reported, “Sir Keir Starmer, has urged Boris Johnson to impose a new national lockdown in England within the next 24 hours to tackle the “out of control” coronavirus.” Starmer told Andrew Marr, “We can’t allow the prime minister to use up the next two or three weeks and then bring in the national lockdown that is inevitable. Do it now. That’s the necessary first step to get the virus back under control.”
On 29 May 2021 Starmer was criticising the Prime Minister for being disorganised and incompetent because Tory party infighting over what was best to do had delayed decisions. Writing in the Observer he said, “The delays to lockdown – not once, not twice, but three times? Avoidable.”
Delays? Yes, Starmer wanted lockdowns introduced sooner – and once they were in place, he wanted to delay the lifting of them.
By 19 July 2021 the Guardian reported Starmer was condemning the “reckless” decision to lift Covid restrictions in England, “In his strongest condemnation yet of the decision to press ahead with a full reopening on Monday, Starmer said Labour did not back the move, calling it “a reckless free-for-all”.”
When the Government was starting the lockdowns they were never early enough; when it was ending them it was too soon. Sir Keir Starmer was very much with Jeremy Hunt in the harder and faster lobby. He cannot duck his responsibility for those who suffered because of the lockdowns.
We shall not forget.
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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.