Knights to remember

This must not be read within 2 metres of another sketch, unless you are in a bubble with John Crace

Sitting down after winding up for the government on the new lockdown, Matt Hancock didn’t look like a man on his way to a 478-vote majority. The Health Secretary thumped heavily down onto the bench, looked at the prime minister and pursed his lips, like a lawyer who had just summed up the defence case for a serial bank robber caught wedging dynamite under the safe door of the local Barclays.

It was a horrible afternoon for the government in the House of Commons. Tory after Tory had attacked the lockdown. Even the ones voting for it had talked about how much they didn’t like it, complaining about the closure of churches, and, inevitably, the ban on golf. The ones voting against were incandescent. 

They all seemed to have knighthoods, for some reason. It was like a Monty Python revival: they were The Knights Who Say “No!”.

“It’s not a circuit breaker, it’s a business breaker,” Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the chamber. “The people that will be damaged by this are the poorest in society.”

Sir Charles Walker seemed on the verge of tears, he was so angry. “We are not asking our constituents to do anything,” he raged. “We have never asked them. We have coerced them. We have criminalised freedom of association.”

Sir Graham Brady accused the government of “arrogance” in assuming it had the right to tell people who they could meet, or “tell consenting adults with whom they are allowed to sleep.” Bruce Springsteen was right: the knights really do belong to lovers.

Johnson cited Tony Blair as a supporter of his policy, which is a bit of a stretch

Boris Johnson had opened the debate, which came on the heels of Prime Minister’s Questions. It was a slightly odd affair, maybe because everyone had half an eye on postal votes in Pennsylvania. Johnson was stuck between trying to fend off Sir Keir Starmer, arguing that the country could have had a shorter lockdown if it had gone sooner, and trying to placate his own side. When Johnson told the Labour leader that lockdowns had been working, Conservatives behind him wanted to know why he was now going for a national approach. 

Starmer, a dark and stormy knight, set a trap for Johnson. Would the lockdown end on Dec. 2, “come what may”? The prime minister replied that this was the date set out on the measures. But he was stuck: say yes, and Starmer could accuse him of being both reckless and implausible. Say no, and further outrage Tories. 

Johnson flannelled. His final pre-cooked answer to Starmer saw him cite Tony Blair as a supporter of his policy, which is a bit of a stretch. Blair has been talking about increasing testing capacity for months. It might be more accurate to describe Johnson as a supporter of Blair’s policy. 

In an effort to get the subject round to more comfortable areas, Johnson finished by claiming that “Blair would not have spent four years in the same shadow Cabinet as Jeremy Corbyn, standing shoulder to shoulder with him.” It’s hard to know if that’s true. Blair first won his seat in Parliament when Michael Foot was Labour leader, and stood on a platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament and leaving the EEC. Johnson’s attempt to cite him as a bastion of political integrity is something of an innovation for the Conservatives.

Unlike Johnson, Blair wasn’t afraid to take the argument to his own side when he thought they were wrong. In the debate that followed, the prime minister was hamstrung partly because he can’t bring himself to really confront the MPs who put him where he is. If Johnson believes in his policy, then he presumably believes that the 34 Tories who voted against it on Wednesday afternoon were voting to put thousands of lives at risk. But when Philip Davies (currently still just a knave) stood to announce that there was no evidence lockdowns work, no one intervened to ask him how he explained the way the infection stopped spreading in the early summer. 

Theresa May was the first Tory to speak after the prime minister. She began graciously. “I don’t envy him the job he has,” she said of Johnson. He responded with his own typical graciousness, scuttling from the chamber even as she was speaking. This sort of casual rudeness doesn’t help the prime minister’s relationship with his party. May wanted the government’s assessment of the economic damage a lockdown would do. “The government must have done this analysis,” she said. “Let us see it.” 

In fairness to the government, Tories can be a bit funny about forecasts. Given that they don’t believe scientific forecasts about the spread of disease, or Treasury forecasts about the impact of Brexit, who could have guessed they’d want to see estimates of the economic damage of lockdown?

Steve Baker seemed to be organising the rebellion – the Knights Manager – and warned that if science didn’t deliver the vaccine or testing Holy Grail that the prime minister kept promising, the government would have to offer a strategy of living with the virus.

Hancock, finishing the debate for the government, did his best. “In a pandemic, there are no easy choices,” he said. He urged the public to “help ensure that, if at all possible, this lockdown is the last.” It didn’t sound awfully like he was sure it will be. 

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