Life is a leadership election

Eternal recurrence on a three-line whip

“Here we are again,” said Steve Brine, a Tory MP. And here, indeed, we were. British politics is like a fractal image, appearing the same whether viewed up close or at a distance. A Conservative Prime Minister is in trouble with the backbenches and resentfully hopes the Labour Party will bail them out. Steve Baker is organising a rebellion. Andrew Bridgen and Jeremy Corbyn look like they’re voting the same way. Tory MPs make speeches demanding that a virus, or international freight, or gravity start obeying the will of parliament.

A few years ago, it was just pregnant mistresses who had to deal with the consequences of Boris

Meanwhile, in another part of the Palace of Westminster, the prime minister rallies backbenchers with a speech that’s greeted by a noisy banging of tables. Later, a loyal spokesman emerges and tells reporters that this spoke for itself.

Boris Johnson of course brings his own repetitive qualities to the image. What’s that you say? He was complacent about a problem and now the whole government is scrambling madly to do something that ought to have been done months ago? He made promises he shouldn’t have made and now realises he can’t keep them? Johnson? Are you sure?

As it repeats, this particular fractal image gets larger. A few years ago, it was just pregnant mistresses and editorial staff at The Spectator who had to deal with the consequences of Boris. Now half the country is required to queue around the block to get vaccines that last week it was told it couldn’t have.

In charge of the elephant-size pooper-scooper on Tuesday was the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid. He has spent days on the phone to MPs, trying to win them to the government’s side. During his speech opening the debate, he took intervention after intervention from potential rebels. This required quite a lot of patience on his part. “Just because several forecasts in the past have been wrong, it does not mean that every estimate or forecast is always wrong,” he said at one point.

As ever the amateur epidemiologists on the Tory benches were louder than they were numerate. Andrew Bridgen accused Javid of being misinformed because he had used the word “average” when in fact he meant “median”. The health secretary, who used to deal with numbers for a living, allowed himself to slap that one down.

The winner in the “sounds true, can’t be bothered to Google it” stakes was Desmond Swayne, not a man who should be asked to divide up a restaurant bill. People, he said, were capable of making their own decisions about risk. “Not withstanding the carnage on our roads,” he said, “which is certainly killing more people than Covid at the moment, some of us still decide to drive.” Twice as many people have died with Covid in the last month as die on the roads each year.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s new shadow health secretary, gave an assured performance. “No matter how dysfunctional the Conservative party has become, the country can rely on Labour,” he began. “When people invoke the story of the boy who cried wolf, of the warnings that came before but never materialised, they should remember that, in the end, there was a wolf.”

When are your kids old enough to be told that the prime minister is Boris Johnson?

By the end of the debate it was just Tory after Tory standing up to attack their own government. Those who weren’t there were crowded into a meeting of the 1922 Committee to listen to a rallying speech by Johnson. It seems reckless of the prime minister to host a superspreading event for his own MPs, but perhaps he’s hoping that if they all have to isolate over Christmas they’ll behave better in the New Year.

In the chamber, Bob Seely tried to give us some perspective. “Omicron, we’re told, could kill 70,000,” he said. “Well, it could do, but it may not.” Presumably that sounded more reassuring in his head than it did out loud.

Richard Drax, meanwhile, felt it was time for the nation to damn well buck up. “It’s time to put fear to one side,” he said, “put our shoulders back and get on with our lives.” Take a deep breath and face the virus like a man, in other words. Alternative public health advice is available.

Brine questioned the point of Sunday night’s emergency prime ministerial broadcast, whose “frightening nature” had led his constituents to complain that “they sent their children off to bed terrified”. It’s one of those tricky decisions every parent faces: when are your kids old enough to be told that the prime minister is Boris Johnson?

And then the vote came, and we were back to fractal images. The biggest rebellion since Johnson rebelled against May. A prime minister with their authority shot. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

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