Artillery Row

Lockdown II: this time it’s politically painful

What are the numbers inside the parliamentary Tory party?

Today Boris Johnson announced another lockdown. One second past midnight on Thursday, pubs and restaurants in England will close, all non-essential retail will be forced to close and people mixing inside homes will be banned, except for childcare and other forms of support. The details were briefed out specifically to ITV’s Robert Peston hours before the PM’s announcement today but Number 10 were caught on the hop last night as The Times had got the scoop on the fact there was going to be a lockdown. Seemingly it had been leaked to them from somebody inside Whitehall and Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry to catch the culprit. Some Tory MPs, including ministers, believe that No 10 is trying to frame a cabinet member centrally involved in Covid planning for what was in fact its own leak. Though whether the PM is supposed to know what was being done in his name is a hazier detail. It remains to be seen what the assiduous Simon Case, the new Cabinet Secretary, will discover.

Despite the fact that the Government could have taken back control of Covid policy for the whole of the UK, they have decided not to interfere with the approach taken by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Could the Government have scored a rare PR victory in stopping Welsh leader Mark Drakeford from banning the sale of clothes? We’ll not discover that now. As the measures announced today only covers England, the Welsh ban on shop sales of all “non-essential” items will continue, for all the doubtless highly scientific good such differences will mean.

But the growing feeling of hopelessness within the backbench Tory Party is not good for No.10. In response to the lockdown Sir Desmond Swayne said his initial reaction was “despair”, adding: “These are difficult decisions but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s the wrong decision. More people will die in the long run.”

An MP since 1997, and former PPS to David Cameron, Swayne says he’s definitely voting against the lockdown and points to the fact that when he asked Matt Hancock two weeks ago what evidence he had of excess deaths above the long term average in recent weeks, the Health Secretary said there wasn’t any. Swayne says: “Every year thousands of people are carried off as a result of the flu but we don’t run around like headless chickens.”

Another MP who says he’s voting against the new lockdown is the MP for Bolton West Chris Green. Green resigned as a Ministerial Aide in early October over the Coronavirus restrictions, saying at the time that the “attempted cure is worse than the disease”. Since then he hasn’t changed his mind and says a lockdown now “only pushes the problem into the New Year when another similar lockdown will be imposed.” After watching tonight’s press conference he said:

The rate of positive tests is static at around 22,000 whilst Sir Partrick’s projection suggested that it would be at about 50,000 per day by mid-October. This key measure was not used and there was no explanation of why. Starting to use a new calculated measure does not instil confidence when the actual positive rate does not meet Government expectation. There was no explanation of the balance between the projected cost of Covid-19 and the known cost of lockdown to health, business, education and liberty. The Prime Minister did not give a scientific basis for exiting the lockdown so are we being led by the science or a desire for Christmas parties?

One MP suggests there are about a dozen he knows of that will vote against the measures, but even if the rebels don’t materialise any trust that backbenchers had in Cumming’s No 10 seems very similar to the confidence Cummings has long claimed to have in Tory backbenchers.

The vote next week will be won by the government, not least because it’s hard to see how they won’t have Labour support for what has long and clearly been Labour policy, so it’s hard for the whips to argue that voting against the measures makes the Tories look weak. The rebels have a ready-made reply: every vote in favour vindicates Sir Keir Starmer’s position. Starmer called for a two week lockdown earlier this month and is very likely to suggest that the Government has U-turned. Whatever the right approach is, it will be impossible for the PM to keep flogging the “Captain Hindsight” gag. Every time No.10 hands a gift like this to Labour, wrapped up so beautifully in a communications disaster, it helps to rehabilitate the opposition. These cumulative mistakes are being ticked off by disgruntled backbenchers and ever fewer are willing to, in the words of one, “do a Nadhim [Zahawi]” and go out to defend a line the government’s likely to fold on within weeks. The Government will win Wednesday’s vote: it should not be confident about the one which will inevitably follow a month later.

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