Analysis: Covid battle shows how, in politics, timing is everything

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AS with life, in politics timing is everything.

Judging when it is the best moment to do things and, sometimes more importantly, when not to do them, is more an art than a science; as many politicians have found to their cost.

The March 3 Budget is fast approaching and Rishi Sunak has arguably the biggest post-war challenge of any Chancellor; to pull Britain out of the economic black hole that the Covid monster has plunged us into and set the country back on the long and winding road to recovery.

Earlier this week, the boffins at the IFS warned the Chancellor against trying to fix the economy in his fiscal statement but, rather, urged him to secure the recovery.

Mr Sunak will be under intense pressure to extend the furlough scheme yet again but, perhaps, in a more targeted way. Yet, there is no doubt one of effects of Long Covid will be more of us losing our jobs and livelihoods.

In the short term, Mr Sunak’s delicate balancing act will be how and when to begin to wean the country off all the Treasury support as the effects of the virus begin to, hopefully, recede.

In the longer term, the Chancellor will have to calculate when to start raising taxes to begin the slow process of returning the country’s books to some form of balance. A second Budget is set for November when the economic medicine will begin to be administered.

Given Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak have said they will stick by the Conservative election pledge of not touching the big three money-raisers of income tax, VAT or National Insurance, then other taxes will have to be targeted. An “Amazon tax” looks like a no-brainer and it is likely not to be a one-off hit either.

The timing of when the tax hikes kick in will have crucial political implications.

Normally, chancellors want to keep these as far away from elections as possible; which suggests the hikes for 2022 and 2023 could be rather steep, so that in the run-up to the 2024 UK poll the Chancellor can, remarkably, provide a little largesse to the long-suffering taxpayer.

But, of course, the immediate focus is, as the Covid numbers thankfully go down, when to ease the country back to some normality.

For too long during this terrible pandemic the Prime Minister has mis-timed things, over-promised and under-delivered, meaning that his political capital has been eroded by a multiplicity of U-turns.

Yet the one seeming well-timed triumph has been the roll-out of the vaccines, which as I tap has now hit more than 16 million.

Indeed, such has been its soar-away success, some people are pointing out the end of April target for inoculating all over-50s across the UK, could in fact be done by the end of March; supplies permitting.

Finally, it seems, Boris is learning the artful lesson that under-promising and over-delivering on deadlines leads to an easier night’s sleep and better headlines in the morning.

Consequently, the c-word, caution, has tripped off ministers’ lips every day this week.

Nadhim Zahawi, the UK Government’s Vaccines Minister, effused about “really encouraging” data on whether vaccines stopped transmission but then remembered the Whitehall instruction and quickly tempered his enthusiasm, stressing: “But, at the moment, it’s far too early to begin to speculate on the quality of the data.”

The PM, normally the most boosterish person in the room, has of late been uncharacteristically wary, explaining how restrictions would be done in “stages” with a “cautious and prudent approach”.

Nicola Sturgeon also donned the mantle of mindfulness when she carefully made the first tentative step to unlocking Scotland with her announcement on reopening schools.

But again, the First Minister made clear she had to be “extremely cautious” in easing open the door to normality and signalled people should not be booking Easter holidays as she too calculated the best time to lift restrictions.

Of course, it was noted in the power chambers of SW1 how Ms Sturgeon had once again gained a jump on Mr Johnson. By doing so, she has piled political pressure on him to follow suit.

With members of the libertarian Conservative Research Group breathing down his neck, Mr Johnson will find it mightily difficult come Monday when he announces his own roadmap back to freedom, if he tells the nation that schools in England will not be reopening. March 8 has been pinpointed as the target date and the mounting expectation is that it will be kept.

Come the spring, Boris’s timing will have to be impeccable on another front to avoid a political problem becoming a constitutional catastrophe.

It was interesting if not unexpected to see Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, in an interview with The decline to say whether he thought his Tory chum would he a help or a hindrance to the party’s cause in the Holyrood election campaign. It was, of course, a rhetorical question as we all know the answer.

Indeed, I suspect Mr Johnson’s straw-hatted face will appear more in SNP and Labour campaign leaflets than in Conservative ones.

No doubt, Tory candidates will be praying the PM times his next visit to Scotland as far away from the May 6 polling day as is humanely possible; preferably sometime in the dog days of June; 2022.

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