So what was the Government really trying to do when it announced last week’s limited restrictions?

In terms of normal politics, last week’s announcements (on Monday and Tuesday) about new restrictions on our movements seemed to have a natural rhythm.

On Monday the Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Officers were allowed to present their own press conference (without questions). This gave them the chance to provide us with the statistics about how the number of infections were progressing and how bad things were getting. They did this well. They said that this week was a tipping point. They rolled forward scary projections for the next few weeks which indicated that the country, within weeks, would be facing the possibility of 200 deaths a day.

In normal politics this kind of sombre warning sets up an opportunity for the Prime Minister to announce severe restrictions on the public the following day. “I’ve got to do these big difficult things because I am following the science. And the science says we are facing a very steep rise in infections”

But this isn’t normal politics, and that didn’t happen. Monday’s dire warnings did not lead the Prime Minister to announce a set of severe restrictions in England [1].

The ‘old politics’ playbook would see the scientists (who are believed) to provide a platform for the severe actions of the politician (who is less believed). The science provides the ‘cover’ for the politician to deliver bad news.

Because we believe in this sort of old-fashioned politics, having heard the science, we spent Monday evening going through our diaries cancelling the next few weeks of meeting people. The numbers of infections predicted indicated that the harsh action necessary would preclude any mingling of households.

How wrong we were. Having frightened us on Monday with the stats from hell, on Tuesday the Prime Minister said only that we had to stop drinking in pubs at 10 pm and withdrew his advice of a few weeks ago about having to go back to the office. Now he was suggesting that those of us who had followed his advice to go back to the office in order to keep Pret a Manger going could work at home after all.

Oh, and if you don’t behave it will all get tougher later on – and it will be your fault.

In terms of a call to arms to stop 200 deaths a day, this was a bit pathetic.

Sam Coates the Deputy Political editor of Sky news said that afternoon

“Boris Johnson announced a smaller package of measures today than perhaps somemight have expected. While there is pressure from scientists for him to go further and introduce greater restrictions, we learnt today that this is not matched by political pressure from MPs for him to do so”

So what is actually going on?

As I explored yesterday what I have always thought was the point of Government politics – actions of the Government in relationship to the public and their actions – is not what all of this is about.

What the Prime Minister wants above all is for us to feel positive emotions about the job he is doing. His connection to us is not about how we should behave but about how he wants us to feel about him and what he stands for.

The science press conference was indeed intended to scare us. But the point of this terror, was for us to subsequently feel gratitude to him for protecting us from the greater restrictions these pointy-headed experts would undoubtedly have introduced if they (and not he) were in charge.

The dance ended on Tuesday evening with Johnson saying that though things could get a lot worse, for the moment at least he is protecting us from restrictive interventions.  When answering questions in the House of Commons after the announcement he was challenged over why Germany and Italy had achieved lower Covid case numbers without renewed lockdowns. In a widely quoted statement the Prime Minister suggested it was because the UK was a “freedom loving country” where “it is very difficult to ask the British population[2] uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary”

Then, during his broadcast to the nation, he said “We have kept the virus at bay. But we have to acknowledge that this is a great and freedom loving country, and while the vast majority have complied with the rules, there have been too many breaches.”

And for some people (myself included) this seemed a very strange way of persuading people to behave differently. He seemed to be saying that in Britain we will break rules because we love freedom, and he forgave us because he too loved liberty.

One  Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, underlined that “Number 10 is caught between a rock and hard place and I know they need to be seen to take action for a variety of reasons“. (The language here is very telling – not that they need to take actions but that they need to be SEEN to take actions. It doesn’t matter what they do but it does matter what they are seen to do).

Of course from an ideological perspective neither I nor most of my colleagues are naturally comfortable with ‘big government’ and draconian measures, nor is that what the public voted us in for. I think we’ve perhaps reached the point where we would find it really difficult to sell much more than this to our constituents”

The message here is that there are those in his Party (including the Prime Minister?) who are libertarians and don’t want the law to be used ‘take away our freedoms’. Many Conservative MPs are worried about the rules about wearing masks or not being able to meet in their houses in large numbers. The Prime Minister is mainly in a debate with theses libertarians about maintaining British liberty.

But let’s be frank. This ‘freedom loving country’ emotion is not aimed at me. It’s aimed at a view that the Prime Minister has of the (and let’s be exact and drop the word ‘British’ and clearly say) English population. His speech in the Commons and his talk to the nation are both creating an emotional bond between his actions (not restricting you) and him (we are both English and love freedom).

The announcement was not about changing public behaviour enough to stop the virus from spreading (keeping your fingers crossed will take care of that) – it was an announcement about the emotion of English exceptionalism. The liberty loving bit makes us as a people different and better.

What will be interesting of course is how, in a little while, when he announces further restrictions on our liberty by not allowing households to mingle he will recreate that liberty bond between him and the 40% of the public he thinks he is talking to


[1] In Scotland and Northern Ireland households were told that they were not able to visit each other. In England they weren’t. (Yet)

[2] Just to note that in fact ‘British’ is a bit loose as a category here since the Scots seem happy with being asked to obey guidance