Unite and conquer: The difficult and essential path to national unity

As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic looms over Britain, is it time for a government of national unity, asks editor Paul McNamee

It’s becoming clear that there is a new job solution if you lose yours due to Covid. Get a contract from the Westminster government as a test and trace consultant. One of these peachy positions could see you coin in around £7,000 a day. Which is nice.

Not sure where to get the application forms. I believe it’s best to know somebody.

To quote the great Fred Willard in This is Spinal Tap, I’m joking, of course.

The test and trace consultancy is not open to you or me, or any of the thousands of people who could lose their jobs in hospitality as the confused-looking three-tier system kicks in.

And that confusion is a core problem. Nobody would argue that the government are in an invidious position. Navigating the crisis is not easy. But they are not doing a lot to help themselves.

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I spoke to a successful restaurateur in Glasgow, one of the legions of business owners and employers caught right in the cross-hairs of restrictions. He was frustrated that he had to close, again, so recently after taking many precautions to reopen.

But, he said, “I wouldn’t like to the be the one in charge.” And, he added, at least there was some clarity in Scotland.

And it was that piece of clarity that allowed him to see where he was so he could try to plan accordingly. The outcome might be tough, but there was some route map.

Last week a poll suggested support for independence was surging in Scotland. The IPSO MORI survey said 58 per cent of people in the country would vote to go it alone. Analysts asked why. Part of the answer was tucked into the same set of numbers. Just 19 per cent of people polled said they were satisfied with the job Boris Johnson was doing as Prime Minister.

There is a sense in Scotland that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is the right hand on the tiller at the right time. And that Boris Johnson is far from it.

Nobody would argue that the government are in an invidious position. Navigating the crisis is not easy. But they are not doing a lot to help themselves

Awarding multi-million pound contracts to firms with little due diligence; allowing a whiff of old pals rewarded to linger; insisting that you’re listening to the science while not really, then opting for local lockdowns with a series of complex measures that municipal leaders say they’ve not being consulted on – none of this helps.

Back in the early days of the first lockdown in March the idea of a government of national unity was mooted. It came initially from Tory MPs, including former minister George Freeman. There is precedent. Churchill and Attlee combined forces to form a wartime coalition. Perhaps the recent plan fell away as Keir Starmer looked a little further back and saw how Ramsay MacDonald was treated, by his own party, after he formed a coalition administration to build out of the Great Depression.

Regardless, there is much to argue for looking at the idea again. We’re heading into a period of profound uncertainty. The best minds of the main parties, in Westminster and the devolved nations, would do much to lead on the front foot and convince a public increasingly unconvinced by what they see and hear.

I recognise this is unlikely. Even at the moment, there is little politically to gain for Boris Johnson as he sits on an 80-seat majority.

But, as we at The Big Issue fight to keep people in jobs and in homes by growing the Ride Out Recession Alliance, we draw from wherever we can, regardless of how strange the bedfellows.

The outcome is important, beyond the ego. I’m sure Dominic Cummings will pay attention to that.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue 

@pauldmcnamee