It's time Nicola Sturgeon binned Prime Minister over Covid - Lesley Riddoch

Days before Christmas, it’s normal practice to suspend hostilities, reflect gently on the past year and observe a temporary ceasefire on the political battlefield.

It's surprising that Nicola Sturgeon didn't go her own way over Christmas restrictions, says Lesley Riddoch
It's surprising that Nicola Sturgeon didn't go her own way over Christmas restrictions, says Lesley Riddoch

Not this year.

Even if last night hadn’t seen yet another Brexit deadline come and go, leaving Britain stuck on its lonely cliff edge with thousands of trucks queuing at Dover and an “oven-ready” deal that Europeans can’t digest; even if English Health Secretary Matt Hancock hadn’t told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the new virulent Covid strain is out of control, prompting comments on social media that he’d made Kent sound like the new Wuhan; and even if newspapers hadn’t added an energy firm selling solar panels and a personal injury claims firm to the never-ending list of dodgy-looking NHS contracts – even if this perfect winter storm of Westminster failure hadn’t hit the headlines this weekend, it would still be impossible to wish the beleaguered Premier an enjoyable few days off.

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Because the weekend’s events suggest the Prime Minister is either so scared of his own backbenchers that he let Christmas relaxation plans go ahead with plans to cancel them almost immediately, or he was somehow completely unaware of the virulent Covid strain identified in September.

Which is worse?

Being led by a man so out of touch that a menacing Covid mutation made no impact on planning for three long months – or so cynical he could encourage people and businesses to make hopeful, expensive Christmas plans in the certain knowledge they would be nixed days later?

If this sounds a tad over-egged, hark at Sir Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, who told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: “The Christmas [Covid relation] was passed into law by the House of Commons after a debate. The view of most colleagues was that another vote would be required for that to change. So, I suspect a decision was delayed until we were safely back in our constituencies.”

Another backbencher said MPs using a WhatsApp group were “seething” at the Prime Minister’s last-minute change of plan which has left thousands of people’s plans in chaos.

“This is a failure of leadership for which we may never be forgiven. Many people were blaming previous cock-ups on Dominic Cummings. Now, it is all on the PM.”

And it’s not just an issue of angry MPs.

Retailers in Tier 4 areas stocked up for Christmas and Boxing Day sales in the reasonable belief these would definitely go ahead.

They’ve now lost the five most lucrative days of the entire year having bought mountains of new stock they can’t use or shift. The same goes for hotels and hospitality venues, on top of nine months of constant financial stress.

So, could Johnson really have planned to relax Christmas and cancel it later? Even for a near compulsive gambler like the Tory leader, that does sound a tad far-fetched.

Yet a weekend YouGov poll confirmed earlier findings – that despite the chaotic scenes at St Pancras station on Saturday night, the vast majority of people (almost three quarters of those polled) actually support Tier 4 for parts of England, with just 17 per cent opposed.

That’s significant.

The received wisdom is that the public (particularly in England) is so wedded to its traditional Christmas behaviours that Boris was too scared to suspend his ill-fated festive relaxation plans.

But this and other opinion polls suggest that explanation is rubbish.

So, if Boris wasn’t afraid of a voter backlash, then what made him belittle Sir Keir Starmer’s words of caution in the House of Commons just five days ago?

It can only be fear of eyeballing his own hardline MPs.

Now, though, trying to postpone the pain, he’s lost their trust and backbench Tories are demanding Matt Hancock’s resignation as Health Minister even amidst a worsening pandemic.

He’s also lost the confidence of the public, with 61 per cent saying his government handled the Covid Christmas Rule changes badly – just a third say he handled it well.

Indeed, adverts about mixing with relatives between the 23 and 27 December carrying the now-jettisoned slogan, “Keep it small, short and safe”, were still being shown on TV this weekend.

So much, so tediously, maddeningly and damagingly familiar. Maybe then, as Boris falls further behind the tide of scientific and public opinion, it’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to resolve that 2021 will be the year of a Celtic Three Nations, not a British Four Nations approach to Covid.

The First Minister's instincts have generally been proved right but she’s often hesitated about "doing a Mark Drakeford" and departing from sloppy Boris scripts until the Welsh Labour administration has taken the first plunge.

That’s strange, when her party’s mission is to question the dominance of London and the automatic fitness of Tory policy solutions for Scotland.

Why did the First Minister not unilaterally bail on the Christmas relaxation plans last week, when it was presumably herself who instigated the Four Nations calls to discuss the alarming rise in Covid cases?

Perhaps the First Minister wants to avoid criticism for “wrecking” joint UK efforts – even those verging on the criminally irresponsible.

Perhaps she’s temperamentally happier applying pressure behind the scenes to get better "Four Nations” solutions.

Either way, the polls suggest she would have big support for going her own way in the New Year.


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