Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on October 12, 2020, after announcing a new COVID-19 alert system. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Sketch

Boris fights a strawman

BREAKING: strawman wins

Another week, another coronavirus number system. After the Two-Metre Rule and the Rule of Six, meet the Three Tiers. These are not, it should be emphasised, the same as the five tiers of the Covid-19 Threat Level, which we don’t talk about anymore.

Boris Johnson had come to parliament to announce the system, if you can “announce” something that has been widely reported for several days. The idea, he explained, was to simplify existing rules, which have left people, Boris Johnson chief among them, confused about what can be done where.

Devon and Cornwall are lobbying for a Tier 0, tentatively titled ‘smug’

Unfortunately, the prime minister seemed at points to still be unclear about precise details of who was covered by what, and where. More than once, he told an MP to look at the government website for the answer to their question. There’s no bigger fan than me of sarcastically offering to Google things for people, but the chamber of the House of Commons might not be the place for it.

Briefly, the new system divides England up according to which set of rules people are forgetting to follow. There’s Tier 1: “unhappy”; Tier 2: “miserable” and Tier 3: “don’t ask”. Devon and Cornwall are lobbying for a Tier 0, tentatively titled “smug”, but no one else wants to hear from them.

Johnson’s statement on “the stark reality of the second wave of this virus” was downbeat. “Deaths are already rising,” he said.

“There are those who say that on that logic we should go back into a full national lockdown,” he said, without identifying them. On the other side, he said, are those – again unidentified – who argue the country should “let nature take its course”.

The idea was to pitch himself as a reasonable man steering a steady course down the centre but, given the absence of anyone in Parliament seriously arguing either case, it felt more like a rhetorical device than a description of reality. Straw men to the left of him, straw men to the right of him, into the third tier, rode the prime minister.

Responding, Keir Starmer faced his own tricky course. His case isn’t so much that Labour would have done any specific thing differently, as that it would have done everything better. So, his argument was that someone had blundered, and he was pretty clear who that someone was.

“I’m now deeply sceptical that the government has got a plan,” Starmer said. This is most unfair. The government has got plans coming out of its ears. There’s the plan to save Christmas, the plan to eat out, the plan to stay at home, the plan to go back to work, and the plan to run virus tests on the moon. If there’s one thing the government doesn’t need, it’s another plan.

So far, the only area in Tier Three forced to close its pubs is Merseyside. Judging from the comments of the region’s MPs, Johnson hasn’t been this unpopular there since he was editor of The Spectator.

But the trouble for Johnson came, again, from his own side. Tory MPs had adopted their own three-tier system: there were those constituencies weren’t affected by the announcement, and merely wanted to attack restrictions in general terms, those whose rural constituencies were included, who wanted to attack their nearest town for pushing up local infection rates, and those whose urban seat was affected, who wanted to put the blame on students.

They all couched their criticism of the government’s handling of the virus in loyal terms, but they almost all still criticised it. “No one envies the prime minister having to make these decisions,” Harriet Baldwin said, before suggesting that he might want to consider making different ones.

There was a sense that whatever national unity had existed in the early months of the crisis was fragmenting, as some MPs emphasized that infection rates in their constituency were low, and so restrictions needed to be lifted, while others wanted to exercise regional grudges.

“We very obviously have a north-south split in our country right now,” Steve Brine, of the blessedly plague-free city of Winchester, said. “There’s no judgement or blame in that, it’s just a very obvious fact.”

Not even Tory MPs seem sure what Johnson’s promises are worth

But there was blame. Lee Anderson, who represents Ashfield, was “hugely disappointed” in the behaviour of Nottingham which, he implied, had let not just itself but the whole county down. Ben Bradley agreed and wanted to know why his constituency of Mansfield had to be dragged into restrictions when Derby, which was closer to Nottingham, wasn’t. He seemed about to point out that Derby was also unfairly allowed to have an Xbox in its bedroom.

Attempting to placate his MPs, Johnson made two concessions: the government will publish the rationale for each of its measures, and an assessment of their economic impact. Keeping these promises will create future problems.

Afterwards, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, told a press conference that national support was crucial to the measures succeeding. “These only work if people buy into them,” he said. “Everybody has got to buy into them.” This may be a problem, when not even Tory MPs seem sure what Johnson’s promises are worth.

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