As Rishi Sunak prepares to become U.K. Prime Minister after all his opponents dropped out, it’s worth recalling what he said during the leadership race in the summer about lockdowns. As part of his leadership pitch to Tory Party members he boasted that he was responsible for stopping lockdown in December 2021 when he cut short an overseas trip and flew back to London to intervene.
In an interview with Andrew Marr on LBC, the pandemic-era Chancellor said he rushed back to “stop us sleepwalking into a national lockdown”.
We were hours away from a press conference that was going to lock this country down again because of Omicron. And I came back and fought very hard against the system, because I believe that would be the wrong thing for this country, with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives.
I noted at the time it was the first time a leading U.K. politician, whether Government or opposition, had implied that opposition to lockdown was a reason to vote for him, and this seemed indicative of a major shift in public opinion about Covid restrictions. The fact that he felt no fear about trumpeting his anti-lockdown stance and saw no need to couch it in careful language about taking the virus seriously marked a big shift from the pandemic era when lockdown scepticism was often beyond the pale. Even more striking was that Marr didn’t bother to challenge him on any of it, despite alarmist calls at the time from the editors of the BMJ and HSJ, among others, for restrictions to be urgently reintroduced.
Will Sunak remain sceptical of lockdowns and put this scepticism into practice when faced with a new surge in infections and hospitalisations, or indeed when pressured to sign the U.K. up to international pandemic agreements? That remains to be seen. The fact that he was one of the quad of four ministers who made all the awful major pandemic decisions is not exactly encouraging – though he now claims to have been a frustrated sceptic trying to bring another point of view to the table. His Eat Out to Help Out scheme in summer 2020 to try to get the economy moving and people meeting again may be an indication of his genuine anti-restriction instincts – if also of his willingness to splash the (borrowed and printed) cash. The fact that he now has the impossible job of clearing up the inflationary mess created by his own fiscal and monetary incontinence does perhaps have some justice about it, though is also obviously perverse: “Yes I made the mess, but don’t worry, I’m the one you can trust to clear it up!”
A number of sceptics are concerned about his links with the World Economic Forum. To me, he comes across as someone who is generally sceptically and practically minded but also prone to going along with elite groupthink. This is also seen in his attitude to Net Zero. Rumours of his Net Zero scepticism have often swirled, the Telegraph notes, but in public he has not disputed the target. During the leadership contest he pledged to make the U.K. energy independent by 2045, saying: “We need more offshore wind, more rooftop solar and more nuclear. We need to insulate millions of homes and ensure that people know about the steps that they can take, at no cost, to improve the efficiency of their homes.” He pledged to streamline planning and licensing rules for green energy to help achieve that goal – so more unsightly, land-hungry renewable developments people don’t want. He also told the COP26 climate conference in 2021 he would make the U.K. the “world’s first Net Zero financial centre”. What role any scepticism about Net Zero or lockdowns will play in his tenure at the head of Government is anyone’s guess. It will be worth watching closely to see if any can be detected, or if he will slip seamlessly into becoming as much an evangelical preacher of the new fashionable causes as his former boss.
Here is what he said to Andrew Marr on lockdowns in full.
I’ll tell you what I was doing in December, though, because I still remember it quite vividly. You know what I did in December was fly back from a Government trip I was on overseas and I flew back to this country to stop us sleepwalking into a national lockdown. Because we were hours away from a press conference that was going to lock this country down again because of Omicron. And I came back and fought very hard against the system, because I believe that would be the wrong thing for this country, with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives.
That’s really important in December Andrew because we were hours away, we were hours away from a national lockdown, but I came back and challenged the system, and said this is not right and we don’t need to do this and I’m glad I won the argument. But it should give people some confidence that in the same way I stood up for Brexit, in the same way I did that, I am prepared to push hard and fight for the things that I believe in even when that’s difficult.
Watch it here.
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