Corbyn's Covid conundrum: what if Labour had won the 2019 general election?
It is two years since Boris Johnson led the Conservatives to victory at the general election, but one decision might have changed everything. Robert Hutton takes a trip down a parallel timeline.
In retrospect, Boris Johnson’s fate was sealed when Nigel Farage announced his Brexit Party would stand nationwide, splitting the Tory vote. Johnson has become the latest Conservative leader to fail to penetrate what pundits are calling the “Red Wall” – the impregnable set of constituencies across the North and Midlands of England that simply keep voting Labour. Without allies in the Commons, the Prime Minister advises the Queen to invite Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. Aides refuse to discuss reports that the Duke of Edinburgh has been seen cleaning his shotgun.
Britain is getting used to its new minority Labour government. Markets have recovered somewhat now the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit is broken; there’s a clear Commons majority for Labour’s policy of seeking a deal that stays inside the European Union’s customs union then putting it to a referendum: whatever the outcome, businesses won’t have to worry about supply shortages in 2020.
The death of a 61-year-old man in the Chinese city of Wuhan from an unknown virus doesn’t make it beyond the foreign pages.
The race to succeed Johnson as Tory leader sees Jeremy Hunt arguing that radicalism alienated voters, while Liz Truss says the party lost because it wasn’t pro-Brexit enough.
Dominic Cummings publishes a 50,000-word blogpost explaining he had nothing to do with the election.
After two people in York test positive for coronavirus, Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth says the government is monitoring the situation. His Tory shadow Matt Hancock urges him to get plans in place. The Telegraph’s star new writer, Boris Johnson, decries the “doomsters and gloomsters, the naysayers and worrywarts who urge us all to panic about some fiendish new Oriental virus”.
ITV journalist Allegra Stratton announces a book deal. “Broken Heartlands” will be a journey through the Home Counties constituencies that turned their backs on the Conservatives.
Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer returns from Brussels with a deal he says “secures Britain’s economy outside the EU”. A referendum is set for May. Labour MPs are split. Starmer himself seems uncertain. Corbyn’s spokesman, Owen Jones, says the Prime Minister will remain neutral.
Corbyn tells the press he has a plan to deal with coronavirus, “and all other forms of virus”. He adds: “Of course I shake hands. It’s only polite!” A worried-looking Ashworth is photographed hurrying into No 10.
Laura Pidcock becomes the first MP to test positive for coronavirus. She blames “the globalised system of mass-production through worker exploitation” for the disease’s spread.
Donald Trump bans travel from Europe. In response, Corbyn says Britain’s borders will never close. Ashworth is spotted running up Whitehall in the direction of Downing Street. Hancock accuses the government of ignoring the “deadly threat of coronavirus”.
A visibly shaken Corbyn announces a national lockdown and the closure of borders. He also cites internet reports that Covid might have started in a US government lab. Ashworth tells reporters the Prime Minister has been misunderstood. Director of Communications Seumas Milne says he hasn’t.
The referendum on the Brexit deal is postponed.
John McDonnell announces a £330bn package of government loans to businesses. Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak calls it “communism by the back door”.
Downing Street announces Corbyn has tested positive. Seumas Milne is filmed sprinting from No 10.
Priti Patel becomes the third woman to lead the Tories. Before police break up her lockdown-busting victory rally in Trafalgar Square, she says the party will fight “the monstrous attack on civil liberties from this neo-communist government”. Hancock issues a press release referring to “so-called Covid-19” and demanding proof that hospitals are really full.
Corbyn is admitted to St Thomas’ hospital. On Radio 4, The World At One reflects the national feelings of goodwill towards the Prime Minister by playing one of his favourite songs, The Red Flag. Cuba offers to send medical aid to London. President Trump tells reporters Corbyn’s illness is proof “socialism makes you weak”.
Corbyn is out of hospital, but with medics running short of protective equipment, Hancock says Labour has failed the NHS.
The Sun reveals that Seumas Milne broke lockdown by repeatedly meeting the Russian cultural attaché in Hampstead Cemetery. Milne, in a Downing Street garden press conference, explains he was “doing what any loyal party member would do”.
The Treasury announces a plan to help restaurants by subsidising dining out, a scheme quickly known as “McDonnell’s Happy Meals”. Sunak calls it “taxpayer-funded bribes”.
After a summer of on-off restrictions, rising levels of infection see scientists urging Corbyn to lock down again, but he’s resistant. Concerned aides confide “he’s been spending a lot of time on the internet”.
Patel appoints Toby Young as her chief scientific adviser.
Johnson’s column urges MPs to “reject the bossy beach-closers, the sycophantic pseudo-scientists and the nosey nanny-statists, and adopt my mantra: Listen to Corbyn! Not, I hasten to add, the crypto-communist currently occupying No 10, but his brother, the respected climate scientist Piers.”
Ashworth announces plans for a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown. Corbyn is present, though his level of involvement is unclear.
In a tense vote, the new lockdown laws pass with a majority of four, after Tory MPs including Jeremy Hunt break ranks and support the measures. Patel, waving a copy of the Great Barrington Declaration, says this means “the end of British democracy”.
As lockdown lifts, Hancock demands a statement on the link between Covid and 5G masts.
After reports of increasing rows, Milne announces he is leaving No 10 immediately, something he insists was “always in my five-year plan”.
In an emergency press conference, Corbyn announces another lockdown.
Johnson’s Telegraph column blasts “Killjoy Corbs, the socialist Grinch who stole Christmas”.
The first people are vaccinated in Britain, at the same time as shots are distributed across the EU.
A haggard Corbyn extends lockdown. Patel announces a “freedom march” through London, but several Tories refuse to attend. “We’re worried she’s overestimating how much our constituents want to die,” one tells The Telegraph. “Even if Brexit isn’t finished yet.”
In a combative Commons hearing, Milne denounces Corbyn’s handling of Covid, and says he will start a Substack.
Britain is finally leaving lockdown. Ashworth announces that half the population has now received at least one vaccine dose, putting Britain in line with Germany. He calls it “a triumph of pan-European cooperation”.
That the Tories win the Chesham and Amersham by-election is little surprise – oppositions rarely lose safe seats – but their choice of candidate raises eyebrows. New MP Piers Corbyn says his election is “a blow against the vaccine-mask-5G complex”.
Polls show government popularity increased during the Covid crisis, with voters forgiving of mistakes and inclined to back Corbyn’s “tough choices”. Some Tories are in despair. “The trouble with Priti,” one anonymous MP tells the Independent, “is that everyone knows what she stands for.”
The referendum on Labour’s Brexit deal is set for 16 December. Most of the Cabinet back the “Just Forget It” campaign, so Michael Gove becomes the face of “Better Than Nothing,” supporting the Starmer deal. Corbyn has privately declared himself bored of the whole business.
While Labour MPs hope the vaccine roll-out persuades voters of the value of EU membership, there are fears the new “omicron” variant will delay the referendum again.
Meanwhile The Sun reveals that during the previous year’s lockdown Number 10 hosted a series of packed symposiums on “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”. Is the shine coming off the government?
Corbyn, aides say, looks tired.
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