Many a Prime Minister has stood on a podium and stated that a new policy will change the nation. However, sometimes this has been wrong; fake news even. It wasn’t the ‘nation’ affected but England. When student fees were trebled, it was England not the ‘nation’, Britain or UK that this applied to. When Cameron announced a plastic bag tax for the country, Wales already had introduced one and Scotland was doing so. Too often it is not made sufficiently clear that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own politicians and laws.
And so, to Covid-19. Since the crisis began we’ve seen the PM and Ministers making daily announcements on a raft of policies to tackle the crisis. All are framed through the exhortation of a ‘national effort’ but many just apply to England. One former Labour Secretary of State called this prism ‘dangerous’ as Ministers must be clear when Covid-19 policies only apply to one part of the UK. How, for example, is a Welsh member of the public supposed to know what rules they have to follow, if no one ever makes it clear what applies to whom.
Despite this however, Covid has actually led to more recognition of the different parts of the UK. Before Covid, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister scarcely featured on main news bulletins. Now Sturgeon has a daily press conference broadcast on media channels. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, has more airtime too.
Broadly the approaches have been similar, but this seems to be changing. There are now subtly different slogans: Scotland’s ‘test, trace, isolate and support’ versus the UK Government’s ‘test, track and trace’. The PM wants to ease lockdown, whereas Wales and Scotland seem more cautious. On schools reopening, Sturgeon has explicitly signalled that the 1 June date being touted for the UK will not apply to Scotland.
At PMQs yesterday the fissure was in the spotlight as Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in the Commons, demanded the PM consult with Scotland on the easing lockdown strategy. The PM was less than clear that he would.
Practically speaking, different approaches will be needed for different areas, not just for lockdown easing but for the recovery. Different areas have been impacted by Covid in different ways, have different priorities, have different systems of transport, different business needs, and so on. This in turn will change what needs to happen next. A comprehensive response can’t be directed from Whitehall; it will need to be shaped on the ground.
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was invited to be part of Covid COBRA meetings. He will want to shape and lead the London recovery plan. Other Mayors and local government leaders will want to do this for their regions as well. This will be complicated and difficult, with a backdrop of severe local government cuts. Regions won’t want government support schemes turned off too early, will seek additional funding to accelerate schemes and demand new powers to lead the local recovery. The Government’s mantra of doing ‘whatever it takes’ will now be wrapped around the PM as it was at PMQs this week.
To date, politics has largely been put to one side, but these decisions are now significant political choices ahead. Today was meant to be elections for some Mayors and councils up and down the country. They’ve been postponed until next year and combined with those due in 2021. Such elections are said to be a referendum on the government. Next year’s will likely be a referendum on the choices taken now and by whom.