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Confusion over restrictions ‘due to way government operates’

The inconsistences and confusion over UK travel restrictions stem from the way the government is run and the Department for Transport (DfT) played no role in the decision making, say leading political commentators.

Tim Montgomerie, a Conservative activist and former advisor to Boris Johnson, told the Business Travel Association (BTA) conference in Liverpool: “I know you struggle to understand how the government makes decisions. You’re far from alone.

“Boris Johnson likes to be PM but doesn’t like the work of being PM. He gets distracted and likes doing other things. He likes to revisit decisions and is comfortable with U-turns.

“The government is opportunistic and driven more by opinion polls than by ideology. The good thing is if you don’t like a policy and can prove it’s unpopular, you could get it changed. The government is incredibly flexible.”

Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of The Spectator magazine, agreed: “Personalities are key to understanding how policy is made. Matt Hancock seemed to treat the pandemic as a test of him as a media personality.

“Boris Johnson developed from not being happy with lockdown at the start to realising the urgency of getting things right. But we still had incomprehensible decisions. Your sector suffered from the muddle and a lack-of-scrutiny approach to policy making. Cabinet ministers have had completely different understandings of what restrictions mean.”

Gareth Morgan, managing director of Cavendish Advocacy which handles the BTA’s public affairs, said: “The closer you are to decisions, the more you realise they’re making it up as they go along.

“The DfT increasingly doesn’t matter. Airlines gave up trying to speak to Shapps. He is just not in charge. The DfT just reacts to stuff. Number 10 and the Treasury are in charge.”

Morgan insisted: “There is no lack of understanding in government of the impact on travel. They do get it. It’s just not as important to them as other interests [and] that is frustrating.”

Montgomerie noted of last week’s Cabinet shuffle: “Boris has brought in personal allies. The balance has changed a little. Sajid Javid was always more of a lockdown sceptic, but this is not a government where the Cabinet matters a great deal. Boris is the real power.”

Hardman warned the BTA to expect similarly contradictory messages on climate change.

She said: “Ministers want to talk a good game on climate change, but they aren’t facing up to the implications for aviation. At some point, there is going to be a reckoning.

“Boris doesn’t like upsetting people. He won’t enjoy telling people to travel less.”

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