For sceptics of a particular stripe, this third Commons debate on imposing lockdown regulations may remind them of Theresa May’s first, second, and third meaningful votes on her Brexit deal – the wearying experience of being forced to vote again, and again, on something they did not think was a good idea before and for which nothing has changed in the interval to shift their opinion.
Except, of course, the analogy is hardly a perfect fit, not least because where Theresa May asked three times and was rebuffed three times, Boris Johnson – not even needing the support of the Labour Opposition that he has repeatedly received – gets solid majorities for each lockdown he seeks.
To the most vehement lockdown sceptics, the government is pursuing the Worstward Ho strategy articulated by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Or, as Desmond Swayne put it in the chamber this Wednesday afternoon, “this is a situation of state capture. The government is completely in thrall to a lobby driving a policy that has manifestly failed. It has failed or we wouldn’t be here yet again. A complete failure. And yet we go through increasing iterations of this policy with ever tighter controls and restrictions in the hope it might finally work.”
But lockdown sceptics have failed to convince either the population or the commanding heights of government that doing less than the failed policy will prove more effective – at least if tackling the virus remains the priority trumping all others, which is the reality of the situation. Indeed, with Covid’s daily death toll passing 1,000 for the first time since April 2020, the market for slackening restrictions appears to diminishing.
Certainly, that is the impression from Wednesday’s Commons division, which saw only 16 MPs voting against the imposition of the third England-wide lockdown. The 14 of them who are Conservatives include the 1922 Committee chairman, Sir Graham Brady, and the former Cabinet minister, Esther McVey. This is noticeably down on the 4 November division that imposed the second lockdown – voted against by 38 MPs, among them 34 Conservatives.
There are two reasons for the waning potency of the Conservative backbench rebellion (and all MPs who are neither Conservatives nor Democratic Unionists continue to display herd immunity to lockdown scepticism). The first, is what Alistair Haimes, a data analyst who has helped inform sceptics’ statistical understanding, has described as the difference between being in a cave and a tunnel. Where previously lockdown was a policy imposed in place of a solution, this time is different because the solution is in sight – perhaps a hundred days off – and these latest impositions seek to limit the damage until then.
It is a message the prime minister put at the heart of his Commons statement, telling the House, “there is a fundamental difference between the regulations before the House today, and the position we have faced at any previous stage, because now we have the vaccines that are the means of our escape.” The majority of Conservative sceptics recognise that this makes Lockdown III a more compelling sequel, at least to November’s feature presentation.
The CRG is not, nor intended to be, a Tory insurgent army
That the tired franchise can finally be brought to its end, makes the second reason for not rebelling a strategic one. Led by the former chief whip, Mark Harper, and Steve Baker, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) is a broad church of Conservative MPs whose views range from principled objection to lockdowns on civil liberty grounds through to an open-minded attitude that will support tightening restrictions so long as compelling evidence is presented and a broader range of expert opinion is sought to support it.
The CRG is not, nor intended to be, a Tory insurgent army. It does not even informally whip. I understand that Harper and Baker have been in communication with the current chief whip, Mark Spencer, conveying a desire to make this third lockdown the last one and to accept the rationale for it conditional on the publication of proper cost-benefit analysis of its implications and a roadmap for how and when the mass vaccination strategy will facilitate a return to normality.
Accepting the inevitability of this latest lockdown, the mainstream of Conservative sceptics endeavoured to avoid making today’s debate the scene of a battle they did not wish to fight too vigorously, preferring to use it as an opportunity to establish the terms for bringing hostilities to a successful conclusion in a timely rather than protracted manner.
It was in this sense that the key contributions to Wednesday’s debate were not the condemnations of the failure of lockdowns past and lockdowns present, but rather the appeals to the government to not regard the power granted to it to keep the restrictions intact until 31 March as an endorsement to do so.
By mid-February (if schedules are kept to) the 13 million most vulnerable Britons will have been vaccinated and the mid-term school holidays begin. What divides most Conservative politicians is not the restrictions imposed over the next five weeks, but whether life can begin to return to normal thereafter. The first sign of this would be schools reopening in the latter part of February rather than the Spring.
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