Ryan Bourne: We can never be certain of the costs and benefits of lockdowns

30 Mar

Ryan Bourne occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato, and is the author of Economics In One Virus.

A year since the first UK lockdown, the economic question most asked about Covid-19 is whether shutdowns would pass a simple cost-benefit test.

Such analyses have been demanded by Covid Recovery Group MPs and, indeed, the correlation between those wanting such evaluations and lockdown scepticism is now strong. Philip Lemoine, a shutdown critic,even suggested in the Wall Street Journal recently that the absence of government economic appraisals worldwide showed policymakers knew lockdowns would fail these economic tests.

I think there’s a more charitable explanation to policymakers’ reluctance to do them: a lockdown cost-benefit analysis is actually incredibly difficult to do well.

Certain issues, such as how much we should value lives saved from mitigating death risks, are contentious at the best of times. But the costs and benefits of crude business shutdowns, school closures, and stay-at-home mandates are far more uncertain than, say, assessing a minor work safety regulation.

First, defining the counterfactual from which to measure lockdowns’ marginal impacts is hard. Clearly, the alternative to lockdowns is not an unmitigated spread of the virus. Evidence from around the world shows that countries which spurned lockdowns also saw waves of infections, rather than a massive outbreak leading to herd immunity. Voluntary social distancing and other mitigation attempts, in other words, appear sensitive to the prevalence of the disease. When cases get high enough, human contact falls, eventually pushing the transmission rate of the virus below one.

The problem is that when these tipping points occur appears a moveable feast across time and countries, unmoored from any consistent prevalence threshold, influenced by pandemic fatigue, and probably strongly affected by chatter of potential lockdowns too. That leaves scope for lockdowns reducing human contact to have big marginal benefits if applied earlier, or in accelerating the downswing of curves. But it also makes it incredibly difficult to precisely set out what would happen in a counterfactual world.

Sceptics are right that unpicking lockdowns’ precise impact requires more than just eyeballing curves. Particularly because a government using lockdowns might exacerbate waves: if people expect governments to lockdown when things are bad, they might begin judging unlocked periods as “safe.” But it would be laughably convenient if you assumed the public would voluntarily mimic the effects of lockdowns precisely when they would otherwise be introduced, as some UK sceptics appear to allege.

A second, related difficulty in lockdown appraisal is that the costs and benefits change with our medical capabilities and knowledge of the virus: they are time and context specific. The UK’s first lockdown was introduced in spring 2020 under a cloud of uncertainty, with fears that, absent evasive action, hospital capacity could be overwhelmed, bringing severe social costs. At that time, we had little firm knowledge about whether a working vaccine would materialise either, and so whether “deaths averted” by lockdowns were merely “deaths delayed.”

The current national lockdown, in contrast, was introduced because of the highly transmissible variant and then-imminent vaccine rollout. The short-term benefits of this lockdown were thus more certain. But as vulnerable groups have now been jabbed at least once, the marginal benefits of lockdown days have now fallen dramatically, while the marginal costs of lockdowns continue to rise. Accounting for changing dynamics within a cost-benefit analysis, influenced by the availability of testing or vaccines that help “lock-in” any suppression of the virus, is therefore crucial to understanding lockdowns’ net effect.

A third and final difficulty arises because a whole range of lockdowns’ costs and benefits are subjective or highly uncertain. The worst attempted analyses so far just calculate the estimated value of lives saved and compare those to some estimate of lockdowns’ impact on GDP or, worse, government spending.

But this is hugely incomplete, ignoring worst-case tail risks and a range of other obvious impacts. On lockdowns’ benefits, for example, a lot of people self-evidently value avoiding infection risks, not just death risks. Some economists have even calculated that mitigating such non-fatality risks might double the monetary value of lockdowns’ health benefits.

On the cost side, the uncertainties are legion. Lost economic output is clearly a mere subset of lost wellbeing. How much should we value losses stemming from, say, someone being unable to attend the wedding of a family member, or visit a friend with depression? These are extremely subjective, but accumulate to very large costs indeed. That’s before we consider lost schooling’s effects on children’s life chances, or attempt to account for the impact of government shutdowns on entrepreneurialism.

No cost-benefit analysis I’ve seen so far has gotten close to developing a robust, country-specific counterfactual to lockdowns, nor accounted for all these effects. But that it is difficult doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t have attempted it, or that we now shouldn’t endeavour to carefully and retrospectively deliver such analysis.

Some dismiss cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns on the grounds that they may mislead the public given these uncertainties. Others, such as Mark Carney, think weighing health benefits against lost economic and social liberties is alien to society’s preferred values. The public clearly wanted to minimise the health impacts of Covid-19, Carney says, so governments should seek to deliver that in the least costly way possible.

Carney may be right on the psephology of what voters wanted and how this drove decision-making. But the trade-offs were real, and analysts shouldn’t shy away from highlighting them. Indeed, my own views on the UK lockdown experience are nuanced. They clearly “worked” in the sense of significantly reducing cases and deaths each time, while the case for them was strongest in Spring 2020 and December 2020, given the contexts of uncertainty and vaccine imminence.

And yet, overall, I still think the re-use of lockdowns after the summer Covid-19 lull is evidence of the failure of the government to think on the right margins. Even if lockdowns passed cost-benefit tests at certain times, that doesn’t make them “optimal.” The inability of the government to harness new knowledge and to unbundle the aspects of lockdowns that clearly imposed costs for scant public health gains, even after months to devise something less painful, is striking. Other countries likewise show how testing, tracing, cluster-busting, and guidance on ventilation, if done well, could have locked-in a lot of the gains of suppression without the massive downsides.

During the next few years, careful analyses will seek to unpick the effects of lockdown relative to counterfactual worlds. Such are the contestable assumptions and uncertainties, though, I suspect we’ll never get a cost-benefit analysis that “resolves” this debate.

Robert Sutton: The protection of civil liberties must be placed at the heart of a reformed Public Health Act

1 Jan

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020, we have seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties in this country. The powers assumed by the government have allowed ministerial decree to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny and to regulate the minutiae of our everyday lives to a degree unimaginable just one year ago.

Yet the basis of these powers drawn from the Act is dubious. Notable legal scholars, particularly Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, have argued that the legislation is unsuitable for the executive powers which have been carried out in its name. Parliamentarians are similarly frustrated by the way the Act has been used to evade parliamentary scrutiny while some of the most consequential restrictions are rolled out on ministerial whim. Steve Baker, in his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, has repeatedly called for reform in this area.

Certainly, any legislation which is being used for such a constitutional distortion must be entirely unambiguous in its scope. The Act draws its authority in part from the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA). The PHA provides powers to restrict the movement of individuals known to have a communicable disease and to control spaces which are known to be contributing to contagion. Yet the current Covid-19 restrictions are far broader in their application that just to those individuals who are known to be infected, and this is where the Act treads into murky waters.

While the PHA is clear in putting forward what restrictions might be applied to individuals and premises known to be contagious (and these restrictions are entirely sensible), it is far less clear what the scope of its powers are with regards to individuals who are not infected with a communicable disease – the vast majority of citizens. The legal precedent on such issues is that, where there is ambiguous or general wording, such vagueness must not be used to curtail constitutional freedoms. Else, we would be able to take justify drastic actions using whatever legislation is unclear in its scope. But the Government seems uninterested in such precedent.

The primary piece of legislation which gives government powers to curtail civil liberties is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA). The CCA is a remarkable piece of legislation which allows a government to wield extraordinary powers in an emergency. As such, its use is strictly bound by ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of those powers. It is clear that these powers are lent to the government by Parliament, and for a limited period at a time. They can also be withdrawn by Parliament as it sees fit. The fear that an emergency might be exploited to evade the House of Commons by a power-hungry executive was precisely what the drafters had in mind when including such safeguards.

The necessity for Parliamentary scrutiny intrinsic to the CCA is why MPs have argued that the executive should be using it as the basis for coronavirus restrictions instead of the PHA, or that the PHA itself should be reformed to make clear the limits of its powers. Yet Boris Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of using the CCA as the legal basis of lockdown powers, so we return to the PHA to define that scope.

The current PHA certainly was not developed with the current situation in mind. So, as it stands, we find ourselves trapped in a middle ground, in which the legislation being used as the basis for lockdown is unsuitable for that purpose and incapable of giving such provisions as to ensure ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny. This gives the rather uncomfortable impression that the Government intentionally chose a legal basis which it could use knowing that it would be subject to a lower standard of Parliamentary scrutiny than that which would be required under the CCA.

Yet to try to circumvent Parliament in the exercise of executive power is extremely myopic. Whether the Government currently realises it or not, it is within their best interests to ensure that further restrictions are brought before Parliament. Parliament is not some constitutional inconvenience. It is the basis for our liberal democracy, the means by which legislation is given its moral authority and an exceptionally useful political tool to measure public perceptions of government plans.

By directly reforming the PHA to explicitly limit its scope, and to allow legislation carried in its name to face full scrutiny by Parliament, the Government would certainly face a short-term inconvenience of restricting the executive powers it has used lavishly thus far. But there would be an overwhelming long-term gain in ensuring that those measures passed have the direct consent of MPs and the indirect consent of their constituents. This would without doubt make for better and more resilient legislation and ensure that any further restrictions are more surely footed in both law and public opinion.

The case for “doing a Sweden” runs out of steam

21 Dec

From the start of the Coronavirus crisis, Sweden’s approach to managing the virus has sparked huge debate. While its Nordic neighbours, and many others, enforced strict lockdowns, Sweden took a more libertarian route, leaving most schools, businesses and restaurants open throughout the pandemic.

Sweden soon became known as an “experiment” in whether lockdowns work, with Covid “hawks” and “doves” closely monitoring it over the last year to see who would be proved right. Did the experiment pay off? Unfortunately, the answer now seems to be no.

Sweden has struggled immensely with the pressures of the second wave, with one Stockholm region recently reporting that 99 per cent of its intensive care beds were full, and the country recording its highest new case count yet (9,659) last Thursday. Sweden has had more deaths than the rest of Nordic countries combined (8,000 have died in Sweden compared to 400 in Norway), and even its King, Carl XVI Gustaf, claimed it had “failed” to manage Coronavirus.

The severity of the situation is most obvious from the fact that Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s Prime Minister, has increasingly intervened on pandemic policy. In other countries, having a leader do this would not be such a strange occurrence, but the Swedish Public Health Agency typically presides over such decisions. Löfven’s intervention has thus been taken as a sign he disapproves of its past strategy (as does the public – apparently – with support for Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, dropping by 13 points in a recent poll, and support for its public health agency dropping from 68 per cent in October to 52 per cent.).

On Friday, Löfven announced the strictest measures yet for Sweden, with the government lowering the limit at restaurants to four people per group and banning alcohol sales past 8pm. It has also asked citizens to wear face masks on public transport at certain times.

The measures still show Sweden cares greatly about freedom. It has not made face masks compulsory, for instance, and shops are responsible for deciding the number of people who can enter them at one time. Unlike in other parts of the world, there are no penalties for breaking the recommendations, and Löfven also still believes full lockdown was not the right choice for the country. However, he has said that if these measures do not have the planned effect, “the government will also plan to close those businesses”, so it remains to be seen how far Sweden will venture from its original Covid response.

Whatever the case, it is clear that there will be big implications for Sweden in the future in terms of its governance, with Tegnell said to be increasingly sidelined. Does the government want to continue letting the Public Health Agency take charge of health policy after the events of this year?

Some of the Sweden “experiment” is more complex than is sometimes made out. It still has a lower death rate than other countries, a higher population to the Nordic countries it is frequently compared with, and its GDP has not been as badly hit as other nations’, which will in turn have an impact on health.

But it’s still clear that the case for “doing a Sweden” will struggle after this point. While the Covid Recovery Group hasn’t called for a “Sweden” exactly, it has been deeply sceptical about the tiered system. With the current second wave situation, and Löfven’s intervention, it will find its arguments for reopening the economy increasingly hard to make. Not even the country that invented the “anti-lockdown” policy can now sell this approach.

Sunak opts to suck it and see

25 Nov

We must be thankful that no-one is forecasting that Government borrowing will rise to record levels this year.  Or Rishi Sunak wouldn’t have been in a position to announce that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

Apologies for the sarcasm – which isn’t aimed at the Chancellor’s measures, but is meant instead to provide an introduction to the thinking behind them.

One response to a ballooning deficit is to cut the rate of growth of spending.  That’s what the Coalition did after 2010, when the deficit hit seven per cent of GDP.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a peak of 19 per this year.  But Sunak’s response is to raise the rate of spending.  Why?

Because in 2010 George Osborne judged the deficit to be structural (he was right), and his successor judges this one to be exceptional (he’s right, too).

It is almost entirely a product of the pandemic and what has followed.  It is in this context that the OBR forecasts the economy to shrink by 11 per cent this year and unemployment to hit 2.6 million next year.

In these circumstances, the Chancellor has found it impossible to produce the four year spending review he hoped for, and has been forced to issue one for a single year instead.

Furthermore, his statement was only one side of the tax and spending coin. Today, we got the spending.  In the Spring, we will get the Budget – and the tax.

Given all this, it will be very odd if Sunak turns up then with large-scale tax rises to raise revenue quickly.  The foundation of his measures today appears to be: suck it and see.

Broadly speaking, the spending package suggests that the Chancellor is going for growth.  That’s the logic of the infrastructure spending, the coming review of regulation, the new northern bank and the enlarged Restart programme.

The Levelling-Up Fund is a classic Treasury exercise in the English centralist tradition, with its central feature of bids from the provinces to Westminster for money.  So it is in a country with relatively few local taxes.

On that point, Sunak announced “extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept”.  Local authorities will like that, council taxpayers not so much.

It’s worth stressing that the OBR’s forecasts, like all such animals, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Our columnist Ryan Bourne debunked its record on this site earlier this week.

If you walk down the sunny side of the street, you will smack your lips at the thought of a Roaring Twenties effect, as employment recovers, consumers spend, the hospitality sector booms and people pile into holidays abroad.

And it may be that post-Covid changes even out for the better, with a shift in activity and spending from city centres to the suburbs and countryside, together with music, art, theatre and all the rest of it.

That might not be such a bad things for towns and their centres, at which the new Levelling Up Fund is partly aimed.  Our columnist James Frayne believes they are a core concern for provincial voters, and government listens to him.

If on the other hand you stick to the shady side, you will point to the economic equivalent of Long Covid: fearsome economic and social bills for damaged mental health, postponed operations, lost educational opportunities.

All that is a big minus for levelling-up – because it’s the disabled, poor and disadvantaged who have been hit hardest by restrictions and lockdowns, especially if they work in the private sector.

The background in recent years is not encouraging.  Since the financial crash exploded, we haven’t grown at more than 2.6 per cent a year.  That suggests recovery may be sticky.

Sunak’s persuasive manner, grip of detail and spare eloquence have served him well during this crisis.  Others holding his post would not have survived roughly ten major finance annoucements in less than a year.

It’s not as though he hasn’t sometimes had to recast his plans – as in October, when he pumped more money into his Job Support Scheme.

And if the economics of his strategy are straightforward enough, its politics was sometimes a bit odd.  If the Government’s overall plan in the short-term is expansionary, why raise the minimum wage but curb public sector pay?

If spending on nearly everything else is rising, why crack down on the 0.7 per cent aid spend?  Doing so because you think aid is wasted or the target is wasteful is one thing.

But that wasn’t the basis of Sunak’s decision – since, after all, he said that the Government intends to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

The Chancellor also left a big unresolved question hanging in the air.  What will the Government do about the Universal Credit uplift?  Will it be extended or not?

The sense of a statement with contradictory messages was picked up Rob Covile of the Centre for Policy Studies.  (The Treasury would do well when the Budget approaches to look at its supply side ideas.)

“Feels slightly like Treasury couldn’t decide whether the message was ‘tighten belts’ or ‘we’re still spending’,” he tweeted. “So we’re getting two or three minutes of each in turn.”

That first element in the Chancellor’s statement, plus the OBR’s horrid short-term forecasts, comes at a bad time for the Government.

For tomorrow, the toughened tiering details are announced. Lots of Conservative MPs won’t like them.  The detail of which tiers apply in which areas will be published, too.  Many Tory MPs will like those even less.

Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery Group will say that the economic damage of restrictions is so severe that the Commons should not vote for more – at least, without an impact assessment.

They may not be alone.  “These measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one,” Jeremy Wright declared in the Commons during the recent debate on the lockdown regulations.

He and Edward Timpson (another ex-Minister) plus other MPs backed the Government but, sounded a cautionary note.

Will the prospect of vaccines be sufficient to rally the doubters round?  Or will they take a leaf from the book of Theresa May, who savaged the regulations during the same debate?

We shall see – but Ministers are not helping themselves by dodging requests for that impact assessment, urged by this site and others, and the subject of a dogged campaign by Mel Stride, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee.

All in all, Sunak is shaping up to go for growth.  Good for him.  Nonetheless, he must watch and wait to see how and when the economy rebounds.  Brady and company are less patient.

The Government is up against the clock to justify its next set of restrictions – as the Covid Recovery Group grows

17 Nov

Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.

The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”

Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.

There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.” 

In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown. 

One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.

But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.

And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.

The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.

As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”

Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.

Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.

Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.


Brave New World

15 Nov
  • One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny.  This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly.  At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events.  It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
  • This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical.  Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave.  Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation.  “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
  • At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty.  With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
  • Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged?), fewer Cains   If so, will such a switch work?  Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
  • Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
  • Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office.  If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future?  In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
  • Which is what’s happening now.  So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation.  What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself.  Second, about the Government.  Third, about policy and strategy.
  • On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff.  What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views.  That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over.  Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
  • Which takes us to government.  Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten.  Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top.  That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
  • And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed.  There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway.  Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
  • That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
  • Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks.  Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites.  First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave).  And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
  • Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system.  The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown.  Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
  • On policy, other quick points.  MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
  • What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view?  One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds).  Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
  • Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too  For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
  • The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings.  At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds.  Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views.  Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position.  There are claims of sexism.  This is where we are going.
  • And finally, there is one very senior Conservative politician indeed who is keeping well out of it – and, no, we don’t mean Michael Gove, who is still our candidate to bring order to policy and process.  Rather, we are thinking of the man last seen placing his rangoli outside Number 11 for Diwali: Rishi Sunak.