This week the twin pillars on which the political constitution of this nation rests, government and monarchy, took a battering. The reputation of the former was assailed by endless revelations of lockdown parties; the latter by allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at the Duke of York. It would be a dispiriting state of affairs at any time, but is especially so for a country desperate to put two years of pandemic suffering behind it. Instead of being hauled back by revelations from the past, voters want to look to the future — to the kind of thriving, entrepreneurial, economically confident, low-tax country that the Conservative Party is historically celebrated for building.
The Queen, as so often, has shown the way, doing as much as is possible to ensure that the Virginia Giuffre affair can no longer tarnish the institution she leads with such grace. The banishment of her second, and reportedly favourite, son can by no means have been easy. But she, in concert with Princes Charles and William, has acted decisively and in the interest of those who honour the history, continuity and tradition of a monarchy that unites us all. No 10 could follow suit by anticipating, rather than meekly awaiting, the Sue Gray report, which it has used as an ever-less effective shield against legitimate questions about lockdown breaches. The Prime Minister should act with vigour to demonstrate that Downing Street is staffed by an effective team dedicated to driving through an agenda that has for too long been undermined by epidemiological or ideological diversions.
On the former, the time has come, after two years, to abandon definitively the prospect of future restrictions and isolations, with their dreadful consequences on mental health and school disruption, hospital waiting lists and staff shortages. Such rules have never made complete sense. Voters are not angry, for example, because Downing Street held parties outside. They are angry because they were denied the opportunity to enjoy themselves in the same common sense way. They vividly remember being ushered off park benches by officials in high-vis jackets, or chased from sports pitches by the police.
The utter illogicality of such rules was exposed this week in the Prime Minister’s apology – “I should have sent everyone back inside” – which of course would have been far less safe than keeping his staff in the garden. The public’s stories of contrasting sacrifices are hard enough to hear; but the fury of those who made them is intensified because many draconian rules were always bafflingly irrelevant to the fight against Covid. One day, when we return to normality, they must be given an explanation and, in many cases, an apology.
Normality must come soon, and for good. Despite the doom-laden warnings, omicron has proved to be a variant less severe than its predecessors. Henceforth Covid-19 — like flu — must be a disease we live with, not hide from. With that attitude clear, businesses will have the confidence to rebuild and grow again. We already know this can happen. In November, before the Plan B freeze in response to Omicron, the economy grew strongly, and was larger than before the pandemic. Since then, inevitably, it has contracted again.
Sadly though, just as the worst of the winter is put behind us, the Government seems intent on making another significant mistake, persisting with tax hikes to fund an NHS which needs reform to ensure its money is spent wisely. This year a staggering 40 per cent of day-to-day departmental government expenditure will go on the NHS or social care.
It is another example of sensible Conservative instincts being jettisoned. Doing so comes at a very real cost, as the Prime Minister may be about to find out. It is clear he instinctively felt outside Downing Street parties were perfectly sensible. Ironically, he may now be punished not because he was wrong, but because he was right, but still imposed the wrong path on the rest of the country.
This weekend Tory MPs will be back in their constituencies, and doubtless be bombarded by outrage. Economically and ideologically they will be forced to reflect on what the Tory party should stand for.
Their leader, the man who promised buccaneering freedom, has delivered crimped, polling-led policies and pettifogging restrictions which, with mask mandates and work from home orders, endure to this day. As Lord Frost makes clear in his interview elsewhere on these pages today, if the Conservatives are to come through, whoever is in charge, they must reaffirm and champion the principles of growth and, above all, liberty.