THIS is no time for playing politics, they said, as the scale of the UK’s coronavirus challenge started to become horribly clear. This is a time for unity – we’re all in this together. Everyone in the government is doing their best.

But what exactly does “playing politics” mean, and what exactly are the members of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet doing their best to achieve (other than, as a National reader observed this week, cleanly passing the buck to whoever is next up at the podium)? Is it ever truly possible to identify an act by a politician that is free from “politics”?

Depending on which dictionary you consult, playing politics either means attempting to score political points with little or no regard for what’s best for the people you represent, or simply taking advantage of a situation for your own benefit (or that of your political party). But therein lies a conundrum – because don’t all politicians believe it’s ultimately in the best interests of the people for their party to be in charge? And wouldn’t that belief be strengthened at a time when commentators around the world are pointing out just how badly your opponents are doing, just how wrong-headed their decision-making appears?

Some would argue the moral duty to challenge them increases during a crisis, especially amid legitimate concerns that a right-wing government is putting different values on different kinds of human lives. And especially when it is not clear that things can even return to “normal”.

How do we distinguish between a politician effectively holding those in power to account and one auditioning for the role of their replacement? Surely such distinctions are virtually impossible. Are some suggesting it might be wise to tone it down, to avoid accusations of showboating?

It’s one thing to rail against the Tories for underfunding the NHS for decades (an entirely legitimate charge, but perhaps not a very constructive one right at this minute), but it’s surely quite another to point out, as new Labour leader Keir Starmer did on Wednesday, that less than 50% of the UK’s supposed testing capacity is being used.

It’s notable that commentators praising Starmer’s debut performance at Prime Minister’s Questions cited his legal background, his “forensic accuracy”, simply because he managed to bat away the most transparent of “corrections” from his opponent Dominic Raab. The Prime Minister’s stand-in even had the audacity to suggest low testing levels were due to low demand. With all due respect to Mr Starmer, when playing politics it’s pretty easy to score if the goalie has hurled himself face-first on to the grass before your foot has even made contact with the ball.

If now is not the time for playing politics, does that imply that doing so in other times (say, for example, during an election campaign) is acceptable? If so, perhaps someone should set out the conditions that must be met before politics as usual can be safely practised, along with any protective measures that will need to be put in place.

A common accusation in non-pandemic times is that someone or other is “playing politics with people’s lives” – but it’s always worth remembering that politics is people’s lives. Political decisions are not moves on some kind of abstract chess board, of interest only to nerds – they have real impact. Sometimes, such as when MPs vote to cut benefits or drop bombs, these decisions can lead directly to a loss of life. But other decisions matter greatly too, and their impact may be much more difficult to assess.

It makes for a snappy soundbite to say that a government is putting protecting the economy above saving lives, or shamefully bowing to (perceived) public pressure to ease lockdown, but in reality these are hugely complex balancing acts.

The economy isn’t just some boring maths going on in the background and only relevant to those who are already loaded. It’s people’s livelihoods, their standard of living, their future health and prosperity. And the lockdown is not some kind of magic safety blanket under which everyone may shelter indefinitely. The awful truth is that lockdown will cost lives too, due to factors such as missed medical appointments, domestic violence and suicide.

Perhaps instead of politicians being berated for being “political”, or insufficiently supportive of their dishonest and incompetent opponents, there should be condemnation of those deploying false dichotomies such as “saving lives vs protecting the economy”. What is needed now is attention to detail – about deaths, tests, PPE, safety in schools, re-opening of shops and offices – and scrutiny of the rationale behind every single choice.

The key to playing politics is surely that you must play to win, not just to leave your opponent red-faced, although that may be a by-product. Every serve, lob and smash should be designed to prompt positive change, as soon as possible, in the UK’s response to coronavirus. If the positive impacts extend beyond the immediate crisis, all the better.

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