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A national emergency and a restricted parliament make a National Government essential

March 24th, 2020

Johnson should restructure the government as soon as the Lab leadership election is over

If the Covid-19 virus were a sentient enemy, we’d credit it with having pulled off a rather neat trick. The scale of the crisis calls for the government to be granted extraordinary powers with which to combat that enemy: to be able to close down large parts of economic and social life – yet that abundance of power must come almost unchecked by parliamentary oversight because the nature of the virus itself means that it’s unsafe for more than a handful of MPs to be present in the Commons at any one time. Inevitably, there must be concerns at such an imbalance.

It’s true that scrutiny need not be carried out within the Palace of Westminster. The media can play a major part, both directly and in giving voice to politicians of a different opinion. Even so, that’s not really an adequate substitute for direct, face-to-face questioning and debate.

So how to square the circle? Well, extraordinary situations can necessitate extraordinary solutions. If scrutiny cannot be effectively performed from outside the government, but is essential given the powers being wielded by it, then the checks and balances must be placed within the Executive. In short, other parties should be invited into by Johnson to join a National Government.

That is not a proposal made lightly. Britain does not do generally do National Governments, even in times of crisis. Neither government entering either World War saw fit to invite the opposition in at the beginning (and in WW1, the coalition was only ever really a tactical necessity rather than a strategic intent), never mind government facing lesser challenges.

But Covid-19 is different. The disruption to life is not far short of a war, as is the range of powers being taken by the government – though one hopes the death toll will be considerably lower. Even if for only a short duration, both the politics and the unity of nation purpose make a National Government the best answer.

Unfortunately, it’s an answer that will have to wait a little while. For the moment, Boris Johnson cannot negotiate with an opposite number in Labour: Corbyn is on his way out and cannot commit his party beyond a few weeks, while his successor is as-yet unidentified (Labour’s interminable leadership election is now in its 78th day, for those counting). However, once Starmer is elected, an immediate invite should be sent.

Likewise, similar invitations should be sent to the leaders of the other Westminster parties. The Lib Dems will presumably have to postpone their own election until after the pandemic has subsided, and while the SNP will probably reject any invitation, consistent with their principles, the invite should be sent anyway.

After that, we can all play fantasy reshuffle but I’m not going to speculate or suggest here, beyond that Starmer (assuming it is he) should be DPM without direct ministerial brief but with a mandate – and the authority – to get departments and ministers to work together; someone to do the strategic detail to Johnson’s PR. Beyond that, Sunak and Hancock should not be moved but all other positions should be up for grabs.

There are of course political risks in such a move, most obviously (for Johnson), it would potentially in an instant rehabilitate Labour as a party of government, both in giving it experience and in – probably – ridding its front bench of the Corbynite activists and replacing them with people who can actually run things. On the other hand, if Labour raises its game it might force the Tories to do so too, and incumbent parties still start with systemic advantages. You can worry too much about the other side.

On a higher level, you could also argue that disrupting the government now by getting rid of half of it and inviting in a lot of inexperienced outsiders would be the worst thing to do. However, to counter that, much of the detail is being handled by experts and the politicians frequently find themselves confronted with a new brief, either after a reshuffle or an election win; government tends to go on fairly smoothly. The important thing is to get the big strategic calls right – and often those are values ones rather than detail-centric.

It would be nice to think that the crisis will rapidly dissipate and that this call is an overreaction to a passing moment. Perhaps so – but if so, better err on the side of caution, and if not, better to have the political tools needed to hand.

David Herdson