ANDREW PIERCE: Cabinet hawks and doves split on when to lift lockdown

ANDREW PIERCE: Cabinet hawks and doves are split on the UK’s plan for how and when to lift the lockdown

As countries across Europe start to ease themselves out of lockdown, there is a growing recognition in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet that it, too, will have to make some hard decisions in the coming days.

Of course, in terms of infection rates, Britain remains some weeks behind European countries such as Italy and Spain.

But even so, two camps are starting to emerge among the Prime Minister’s colleagues and advisers: the hawks and the doves.

Now that Boris has left hospital, the disagreement between the two factions is starting to heat up

The hawks, spurred on by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, see a return to normality as an urgent necessity to avoid permanent economic damage to Britain.

Meanwhile, doves such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock fear a return of the pandemic and insist that social distancing rules must remain in force long after the infection curve flattens.

Now that Boris has left hospital, the disagreement between the two factions is starting to heat up.

The hawks, spurred on by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, see a return to normality as an urgent necessity to avoid permanent economic damage to Britain

For while they are all concerned that he obeys doctors’ orders and rests up, they are equally interested to know whether Boris, after experiencing the viciousness of coronavirus first-hand, is as committed as he was before to relaxing the unprecedented lockdown.

To discern which side Boris is leaning towards, we need only look at two of the first calls he made after leaving intensive care.

They were to Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary who has been deputising for him, and Mr Hancock – both leading doves in the Cabinet.

At yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Raab made it clear which side of the debate he stands on

Meanwhile, doves such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock fear a return of the pandemic and insist that social distancing rules must remain in force long after the infection curve flattens

Indeed, at yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Raab made it clear which side of the debate he stands on.

He said: ‘We have to keep social distancing in place. There will come a time in the future when we can talk about relaxation or transition but we are not there now.’

One senior Whitehall source sympathetic to the doves explained: ‘Our entire strategy is to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, to ensure patients aren’t dying on trolleys in hospital corridors or at home alone because of a shortage of NHS beds.

‘We can’t risk all that by ending the lockdown, which has broad public support.’

Asked about the Prime Minister’s view, the source added: ‘I think it’s fair to speculate when you have your life saved by the NHS that he may now be completely signed up to that view. The hawk has become a dove.’

If true, it would be a monumental U-turn for the Prime Minister, a lifelong libertarian who was once one of the most hawkish Cabinet members, along with Mr Sunak, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, and Home Secretary Priti Patel.

It would be a monumental U-turn for the Prime Minister, a lifelong libertarian who was once one of the most hawkish Cabinet members, along with Mr Sunak, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, and Home Secretary Priti Patel

Michael Gove, who like Mr Raab fought Boris for the leadership last year, is also remaining loyal. ‘He’s not a hawk or a dove, he’s with the PM,’ a source claimed

As one ministerial source put it: ‘Boris wasn’t so much a hawk about lifting the lockdown, he was the Cabinet’s golden eagle.’

This may explain why it’s rumoured that Boris has had no personal contact with the hawkish Mr Sunak.

Describing the Chancellor’s outlook, one source said: ‘Not only will it be economic Armageddon, Sunak fears a terrible impact on mental health and families when unemployment soars and businesses start folding.’

But for all their differences, there is some agreement among the hawks and doves – that schools should reopen by the summer half term.

One senior minister said: ‘I think we are at one on this. If it is possible we will start getting schools open, but it depends on the medical evidence.’

Whatever the truth, as Boris convalesces at Chequers, his country residence, he knows that Mr Raab is quietly enforcing his wishes.

Michael Gove, who like Mr Raab fought Boris for the leadership last year, is also remaining loyal. ‘He’s not a hawk or a dove, he’s with the PM,’ a source claimed.

And so for the next three weeks at least, the doves in the Cabinet will be confident they can hold sway.

But one well-placed source says: ‘Boris will make the final decision.

‘Two weeks ago Boris the hawk would have decided. Now I’m not so sure.’

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