Johnson is on the crest of a vaccine wave. Labour will just have to ride it out

He made a great effort not to crow, but the Conservative minister could not contain his mix of pleasure and slight surprise this week. “If there is one thing that the Labour party absolutely does not want right now,” the minister told me, “it is a sudden and sustained display of competence on the part of this government. Yet that’s exactly what they’re now facing.”

The UK’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is the most significant achievement over which Boris Johnson has presided since the pandemic began. Ten million of us have now had our first jabs, 15% of the population and rising, way above the rate for most other European countries. It is a public health success story that looks set to continue well into the year. It is also an undeniable political boost for Johnson. Whether it is the proverbial gamechanger is harder to say.

Recent opinion polls definitely suggest a shift in the public mood. After long months of generally negative ratings for Johnson’s handling of Covid, approval for the vaccine rollout soared to over 60% in late January and looks set to continue. British optimism that the coronavirus situation is improving is also now rising fast after months in the doldrums – a dramatic contrast with expectations elsewhere. It is no surprise that talk of a vaccine bounce is easy to find among Tory MPs, though few are foolish enough to talk about it too publicly.

The real credit for the vaccine extends far beyond Johnson, of course. It belongs to the scientists who made the vaccines possible, to the biotech businesses that were mobilised to produce them, to the vaccine taskforce, which made an impressively robust set of contracts to ensure supply, and, in particular, to the NHS at all levels, which is delivering a fair, secure, efficient and nationwide rollout. Only the NHS, with its public service ethos and its reach, could have done this. The mind boggles at how a private sector body like Capita or Serco might have approached the task. Politically, though, there is no doubt about the beneficiary – it is Johnson.

It is also true that the political dividend might not have been so clear if the European commission had not reacted so intemperately to its own vaccine supply problems last week. But Ursula von der Leyen has given Tory confidence a shot in the arm. The commission president’s disastrous attempt to divert AstraZeneca vaccines from UK plants into the EU and her threat to brush aside the Northern Ireland protocol were a political windfall – though it could all go horribly wrong if the Irish situation deteriorates, which it might.

The vaccine bounce is not easy for Johnson’s critics and opponents to accept. Many will be in denial. They will point, with justice, to appalling ministerial failures, inconsistencies and delays that have contributed to the UK’s truly terrible Covid death toll of more than 100,000. The mishandlings have included shortages of equipment, neglect of care homes, refusal to quarantine arrivals from abroad and a litany of stupid and counterproductive attempts, cravenly undertaken to appease libertarian Tories and the tabloid press, to have the “best of both worlds” in managing the pandemic rather than intervening decisively and toughly to control it.

For those who know almost no one who has ever had a good word to say for Johnson, or his ministers, or the Tory party in general, or the UK’s handling of coronavirus, or Brexit, Johnson’s successes are especially hard to stomach. By what system of reason or justice can such a person be rewarded by the public for his successes but go unpunished by them for his failures?

Several things combine to explain why. One is simply that most of the failures came at the start of the pandemic when Britain, like everyone else, was struggling to come to terms with the scale of the threat Covid-19 presented. A successful vaccine rollout, by contrast, comes at the end. It is the equivalent of the last-minute winning goal that used to send the crowd home happy. No one said politics was fair.

A second is that a lot of people have always liked Johnson, always voted for him and will continue to do so, in spite and even because of his disreputable qualities. This offends his enemies and chimes with the support so many Americans offer to Donald Trump. Johnson’s support is a reality, as Trump’s is. To say this may seem a bit like the exchange in Shakespeare in Love in which the Elizabethan impresario, played by Geoffrey Rush, explains that in the theatre, by some mystery, “strangely enough, it all turns out well”. To some in the Tory party, Johnson leads a similarly charmed life.

Nevertheless, the most important reason is that politics in a pandemic is different. Normal rules do not apply in this enforced and extraordinary intermission between more predictable times. In some ways this has been a national emergency like wartime. Like it or not, Johnson was the national leader, and Britain had only recently elected him when the pandemic started. The public wanted him to be successful in getting the country through it, and was prepared to cut him unusual slack for unusual times. It still does. A successful vaccine rollout inevitably reinforces support for him, because he is the man in charge.

This helps explain why – the other side of the same coin – Labour struggles to make the impact its impatient supporters so crave. This is not Keir Starmer’s fault. The fault lies with the situation. Few are paying attention to party politics. There is no all-powerful policy that the Labour leader can dream up to make the pandemic go away. At such a time, Starmer also faces other inbuilt disadvantages. Attacking Johnson runs the risk of putting party before country. And like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Johnson will always command the airwaves, a crucial advantage in a lockdown.

Labour’s problems are more deep-seated. The party is internally conflicted about what it seeks to be in the post-Blair, post-Corbyn era, and about who it seeks to represent. It is clinging on by its fingertips to its historic claim to be a truly national party. It has been decimated in Scotland and badly damaged in the northern half of England. Labour may simply be broken. Like the Liberals a century ago, its time may be up.

We shall learn the answer to that in the years to come. But it is not going to be decided during the pandemic. It may change, possibly, after the pandemic is beaten. Britain may well decide then that Johnson saw us through the crisis, but that he is not the leader the country needs in its aftermath. At that point, rather as in 1945, the country may be open to a different approach. Starmer may find he can claim his Attlee moment. But that’s all in the future. Right now, the hour belongs to Johnson. Don’t get mad about that; get even.