Does Boris Johnson experience whiplash whenever he walks into the House of Commons? Everywhere else, people want to know why he’s not doing more to stop the spread of Covid. Inside the chamber, he’s assailed by questions about why he’s not doing less.
These come, almost exclusively, from the Conservative benches. A year after the virus first emerged, and despite it having hospitalised their own leader, many Tories seem at some basic level to not really believe in it.
It’s hard to escape the sense that some Tories suspect Covid is the result of a lack of moral fibre
They wouldn’t put it like that. They would talk about keeping public spending under control and protecting civil liberties. The case was best put on Wednesday by Sir Charles Walker, whose voice trembled as he spoke about how he didn’t want to inflict restrictions on constituents who were suffering in lockdown. Although he didn’t offer an alternative strategy or discuss whether an increase in the numbers of people who were sick or dying might also cause suffering.
For some Tories, it’s hard to escape the sense that they suspect Covid is basically the result of a lack of moral fibre, something that could be cured with a bit more backbone and a brisk walk, instead of all this left-wing nonsense about hospitals and ventilators.
This is probably the position that the prime minister would take if he were doing any job other than prime minister. Certainly were he still a newspaper columnist, it’s easy to imagine him banging out pieces about Sweden and the Great Barrington Declaration. As a classics graduate, he is perfectly qualified to offer alternative scientific theories.
Instead, he was stuck on Wednesday explaining to Parliament why he wanted to keep everyone at home. Their own homes. With their own families. Tory opposition was much more muted than it was when Parliament last voted on all this. The sheer scale of the current wave of infection, despite weeks of restrictions, seems to have left them wondering whether, in fact, this might be something to be taken seriously. So the prime minister had an easier ride.
The first Tory to object to the new rules was Desmond Swayne. “Why are the regulations pervaded by a pettifogging malice?” he asked. Johnson gazed at him; his face screwed up with irritation. How had fate landed him in a situation where somebody else got to use funny words to make a silly point, and he had to give a straight answer?
Sir Edward Leigh made the case for why we cannot rely on ‘vulnerable’ people to look after their own health
Sammy Wilson rose for the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP are basically a Tory tribute act, with the distinction that, unlike the Conservatives, they don’t want a border in the Irish Sea. Wilson was focused on the economic damage of another lockdown. “Their justification is that we need to suppress the virus, protect the National Health Service and protect the vulnerable,” he said of the government. “Since those objectives were not achieved by the first two lockdowns, why does the prime minister believe that they will be achieved this time?” Or, to put it another way, if two fire engines haven’t managed to put out a blaze, why bother sending a third? If those two pints didn’t get me drunk, why would this one?
Feeling unable – with more than a million people currently infected – to argue that the virus was all a bit overblown, much of the Tory focus was instead on allowing people to exercise personal responsibility.
Sir Edward Leigh managed to make the case both for and, in a novel twist, against this approach. “Will the prime minister tell people like me in the priority groups that there has to be an element of self-reliance, self-isolation and looking after our own health, and that we cannot just rely on successive lockdowns?” He said. “Let us get rid of all these bureaucratic hurdles and get more reliance on self-reliance.”
It was a point firmly made and only slightly undermined by the fact that the 70-year-old Sir Edward had travelled to Parliament to make this point in person, despite the session being largely virtual. He had thus become a worked example of why the government can’t rely on people in vulnerable groups to look after their own health. Too many of them are Tory MPs, and simply can’t be trusted with that kind of responsibility.
Later, Cheryl Gillan called for more parliamentary debates on Covid, before going on to express her fears about fake news and conspiracy theories on the virus being spread. The sketch would gently suggest that if she’s really worried about the latter, a better solution might be to shut Parliament altogether.
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