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When I wrote back in January that Labour anticipated a “vaccine bounce” would benefit Boris Johnson, some dismissed it as a crude bit of expectation management ahead of May’s local elections. Well, it turns out that bounce is more real than imagined, and getting stronger. Even if YouGov’s 13 point polling lead for the Tories is an outlier, the direction of travel is clear.
Keir Starmer addressed the poll directly today, saying: “Of course we’ve got a lot of work to do – I accept that – but I think in the middle of a pandemic, particularly with the vaccine rollout, people do want the government to succeed.” He’s right, of course. For most people politics is often low on their list of priorities, and even less so in a pandemic. They just want things to get back to normal, or as normal as is possible.
Indeed the dramatic fall in Covid deaths and hospitalisations has been matched by an equally dramatic rise in the number of people who think things will get better by the summer. A new ONS survey today found that around a third (32%) of adults felt “life will return to normal” in six months or less compared, with 22% last week. That’s a pretty big jump.
It’s worth saying that Starmer’s problem is shared by other opposition leaders across the world. A study last year by the LSE found that incumbent governments across the globe had benefited from imposing lockdowns, with trust in government and their leaders rising. Add in an incredibly successful vaccine rollout and Labour was always going to struggle this spring.
But the idea that people have decided to “cling to nurse, for fear of something worse” has taken a bitterly ironic twist in the UK, thanks to that heavily-criticised decision to offer NHS nurses a mere 1% pay rise. As I wrote last night, the political ineptitude of failing to reward the very people who have been delivering the vaccine – and who spent exhausting, PTSD-inducing hours in ICU this winter – is quite shocking.
No.10 stuck firmly to the line that the 1% was “what is affordable”, and points to current inflation of 0.6% (while ignoring that the OBR forecasts inflation to go above 1% this year). Health minister Nadine Dorries actually dared to venture this morning that she was “pleasantly surprised” that any increase had been proposed at all, given the wider public sector pay freeze.
In his No.10 press conference, Matt Hancock stuck to the line, saying “we do have issues of affordability”.
Dorries said “this is what the chancellor thinks we can afford”, so it’s really a Treasury decision. With a 2% pay rise for nurses costing roughly £200m a year on some estimates, many will feel that’s a small price compared to other spending.
It’s possible that the independent pay review body will come up with a higher figure (not least given the threat of losing older nurses and midwives) but ministers will then look like they were forced into it. Don’t forget that Johnson’s central 2019 manifesto pledge of “50,000 more nurses” was a sleight of hand that relied on 18,500 current older nurses not leaving the health service. How many will now?
One simple solution could be for the Treasury to dip into the £55bn “Covid reserve” it has sensibly set aside for the coming year. Roughly £36bn of this reserve has been earmarked for Test and Trace (which gets another £15bn) and other contingencies, but that means Sunak has given himself £14bn wriggle room.
As with the Iraq and Afghanistan war ‘reserves’ in the 2000s, the Covid reserve is an invaluable way of providing a spare pot of cash. Given the medical trench warfare fought by nurses against the virus, why not use it to fund a decent pay reward? Yet in his press conference Hancock didn’t even attempt to give himself wriggle room. I may be wrong but, as with Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, it feels like the government could needlessly burn up political capital before agreeing the inevitable U-turn.
It remains to be seen just how much if at all this NHS pay row eats into that healthy poll lead. But it could break the link between the government and the vaccine rollout, forcing the public to believe instead that it is NHS staff who deserve the credit for its success, not ministers. Many Tory MPs are also acutely aware that the “vaccine bounce” could be replaced by a “jobless dip” in the polls as unemployment grows later this year after furlough is withdrawn.
Which brings us back to Labour. It has the problem that the next general election (in 2023 or 2024) may or may not be fought directly on the government’s covid response. But shadow Treasury Pat McFadden was surely right when he told us on our podcast this week: “Anybody turning up to the next election with a pre-Covid manifesto would be like turning up to D-day on a horse.”
The fallout from the pandemic of how the state works and how the economy recovers is both an opportunity and a challenge for the Opposition. From catch-up schooling and online learning to working from home and the fate of city centres, from long-term public health and social care resilience to post-Covid growth rates (projected to be sluggish from 2023), it’s all up for grabs.
McFadden points out that “levelling up” could ring hollow if shiny new rail stations or bridges are not matched by people thinking their family’s life chances have got better, if their wages remain stagnant or their kids are part of a youth unemployment epidemic.
The next election will be won by a party that has a sufficiently forward-looking vision, a credible plan to carry it out and a leader who is seen as competent enough to deliver it. That could be Boris Johnson, it could be Rishi Sunak, it could yet be Keir Starmer. The image of a Tory government reverting to type on the NHS will help the Labour leader, but he knows he needs a lot more than that.