Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual news conference on the ongoing situation with COVID-19, at Downing Street, London on October 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/Toby Melville
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual news conference on the ongoing situation with COVID-19, at Downing Street, London on October 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/Toby Melville

London — For weeks Boris Johnson has been confronted with complaints that he is ruling by diktat and imposing coronavirus restrictions on public freedom without consulting parliament.

The relentless criticism has left the British prime minister weary, longing to be popular and no longer enjoying the job he coveted since his youth, according to one minister in his team.

On Monday Johnson tried a different approach. Instead of taking decisions and announcing his orders in a sombre address to the nation, a style that characterised his methods during the early weeks of the pandemic, he sought the agreement of local authorities for new restrictions in their areas first.

At the weekend, the premier and his officials were in contact with mayors from cities worst affected by the resurgent disease to prepare them for what was to come. He consulted his cabinet, held another meeting on Monday morning with local leaders and even called his chief rival, the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer, to brief him on the announcement in advance.

Johnson told parliament he would simplify the rules into a three-tier structure across England. Everyone in the country could look up where they live on a government website and see easily which restrictions applied to them.

“Nowhere will be shut down indefinitely, and the exact restrictions at this level — “very high” — will be worked out with local leaders, along with tailored packages of support,” Johnson said.

‘Adequate support’

But the attempt to present a consensual approach did not help. A succession of MPs, including some of Johnson’s Tory colleagues, called his plans into question. He countered by repeatedly saying that Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of the Liverpool, where the harshest restrictions will be imposed, was on side.

But Rotheram had a different view. “It’s totally false that myself or anyone else locally agreed to measures. They were dictated to us by government,” he said on Twitter. “The prime minister is trying to divide us and distract from the fact that they are failing to provide adequate support to go with any restrictions.”

Johnson was also taken to task by his own Tory colleague, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street. “This is not something regional leaders supported, nor what I believed would be happening after extensive conversations over recent days,” Street said.

One of the pressure points for the Tories is that many of the areas in northern England that switched from Labour to support Johnson in last year’s general election are facing some of the toughest limits on social and economic activity.

The premier has already suffered a loss of support from a number of his own Tory MPs, and they have shown that they are ready to rebel in the House of Commons.

They may be further emboldened by papers released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies late on Monday, which included its advice that Johnson’s controversial 10pm curfew on pubs would have only a “marginal impact” on infections.

The documents included criticism of the government’s stuttering test-and-trace system and warned it will need to expand quickly, and be matched by financial support to people asked to self-isolate, if its effectiveness is not going to “further decline.”

As the pandemic spreads out of control for a second time in the UK, political goodwill has largely deserted Johnson’s 10-month old government. Officials expect restrictions to be tightened further, and a full national lockdown has not been ruled out.

In the weeks ahead Johnson may have to revert to ruling from the centre sooner than he wants, whatever the cost.


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