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Losing ‘Freedom Day’ is galling for Boris Johnson, but things could get worse

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Boris Johnson has once again been persuaded that he must do the inevitable and cancel “Freedom Day” – a decision that will deeply rankle with him.

The prime minister is said to have complained to aides over the weekend about briefings to newspapers at the end of last week that a four-week delay was the likely outcome, saying he had technically not made the decision yet. But one thing matters more to Johnson than being able to join crowds in a packed pub on 21 June: not having to close them again a few weeks later.

There are some cabinet grumblings, though not from anyone who really has influence. Johnson took the decision at the beginning of his premiership to avoid the weekly cabinet showdowns that plagued Theresa May by appointing loyalists who do not speak out of turn on issues outside their brief.

Those who matter – Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove – were unanimous in favouring a delay. Sunak told the quad meeting on Sunday that his own views were well known – they were leaked to the Guardian last week.

The Treasury has deliberately “gone long” and extended furlough to the autumn, though some support will start to taper off. Sunak is now firmly convinced that reimposing restrictions when they have been lifted does the most long-term economic and psychological damage.

And those close to the chancellor say he has not particularly relished being painted as the anti-lockdown hawk when he seems himself more as a pragmatist who will set out the bleak economic picture because it is his brief to do so.

From Dominic Cummings and others, we know it was not Sunak who was the bitterest opponent of lockdown in the autumn, but the prime minister himself.

Johnson will get a pasting from parts of the rightwing press, especially the Mail and the Telegraph, whose approval he most craves, as well as from many of his own MPs.

Those MPs who oppose any delay have limited powers – there will be a vote to renew the restrictions but Labour is likely to back the government. There are other ways of making trouble in parliament on other pieces of legislation but it is unclear if that can be effectively co-ordinated. Enough Tory MPs may vote against the restrictions to make the PM dependent on Labour votes but that is an embarrassment rather than a real obstacle.

Not all of those Tory MPs who are signed up to the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic MPs will oppose delay either. Some are more pragmatic and their main frustration had been with rules that felt arbitrary, such as the 10pm curfew or the scotch egg debacle.

Perhaps most effectively, those MPs who feel most strongly about ending restrictions can go on the airwaves and gloomily predict that if caution is so needed in the summer then surely new restrictions will be needed in the autumn as the NHS comes under more seasonal pressure. That might start to raise the public’s hackles.

Johnson’s decision to delay for four weeks will break some businesses but will make relatively little difference to how the vast majority are living their lives. Nightclubs, maskless commuting and mass indoor gatherings can probably be foregone for another month without too much tribulation.

The real test will be if infection rates continue to climb and hospitalisation rates start to look more worrying. The idea of reimposing restrictions is anathema to Johnson. There are other finely balanced judgments too – on mask-wearing, working from home advice and vaccinating schoolchildren. In the end, this decision may look like the easy one.

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