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Artillery Row

Sir Graham Brady – “A lot of people are near the end of their tether”

1922 Chairman warns that Tory MPs may vote for a November lockdown, but not a December renewal

Sir Keir Starmer’s confirmation that Labour will support the government in Wednesday’s vote in the Commons ensures that England will be locked down from one minute past midnight this Thursday morning.

Conservative lockdown sceptics  are duly weighing up their options. For, if they cannot defeat the measure, is there much point making an impotent protest? Alternatively, does the reality that the lockdown is going to happen embolden them to show on-the-brink businesses in their constituencies that the killer blow was at least not assisted by their local MP?

“I’m minded to vote against” confirms Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, whose “Brady amendment” back in September – although not debated – pushed the government into conceding the principle that national restrictions require parliamentary approval.

When it was tabled, the Brady amendment quickly gained the support of at least 56 Conservative MPs – enough to overturn the government’s majority. Most of those Tories were on the lockdown sceptic wing of the party, but were joined by others attracted to the principle of promoting parliamentary scrutiny.

From that principle now comes practice: Sir Graham anticipates that on Wednesday some Conservative MPs will vote against the government and others will abstain, but, he says, “I think it’s pretty clear the government will get its vote through without needing to depend on Labour support.”

As the cold tone of the questions to the prime minister in the Commons chamber this afternoon clearly articulated, Conservative backbenchers who will support the lockdown are doing so without much conviction, let alone enthusiasm. The sense of disappointment with the government is palpable. Besides those natural sceptics who have advertised their opposition – MPs like Philip Davies, Sir Charles Walker and Desmond Swayne – on grounds of personal freedom and the suspicion that lockdowns hurt more than they cure, there are now an additional category of MPs who are, as Brady puts it, “angry that they dutifully trooped out over the last couple of weeks to make the case for regional tiers only to have the ground cut from under their feet by the government announcing a national lockdown.”

The belief that the government is not consulting widely enough is hardly a new complaint, but there is clear exasperation that the government is listening to the scientific experts of Sage without balancing that evidence with expert analysis of the lockdown’s other health and economic consequences.

the government would be well advised to bank Wednesday’s vote for lockdown as the potential limit of Tory backbench endurance

In the Commons today, Sir Graham Brady requested that this wider consultation be included in a full impact assessment so that MPs could vote on Wednesday with a clearer sense of lockdown’s costs as well as potential benefits. Boris Johnson brushed the suggestion away. He was equally offhand in dismissing Liam Fox’s call for a committee to assess the policy costs and Mel Stride’s suggestion that the chief economic adviser should appear alongside the chief scientific and medical officers during Downing Street press conferences.

Earlier today, a Downing Street spokesman assured lobby correspondents that transparency was provided through the publishing of economic data. But data about what has happened is not the same as projections about what may happen if different policies are enacted.  The scientific advice favouring a lockdown has, after all, been adopted on the basis of projections. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has admitted that the lockdown will cause job loses, but has not shared what estimates of unemployment the Treasury is anticipating from the lockdown.

This lack of disclosure is creating considerable frustration among Conservative MPs who feel they are being denied the evidence required to make a considered judgment. “It’s a massive concern” says Brady, “that the government won’t put this information out before Wednesday.” Among other MPs there are those who suspect that the Treasury has commissioned detailed projections but is withholding the awful truth, whilst others fear that Whitehall has so subcontracted its decision-making to Sage that it dares not commission full impact assessments for fear of fatal contradiction.

A theme of the questions put to the prime minister during his Commons statement today concerned restrictions supported without scientific evidence. A particular gripe was the government’s insistence that physical exercise remains a good idea but playing non-contact sports like golf will be illegal from Thursday. “If there’s no rational argument for a restriction then that will cause real anger,” the chairman of 1922 warns.

At best, Sir Graham believes the government would be well advised to bank Wednesday’s vote for lockdown as the potential limit of Tory backbench endurance and not assume a blank cheque for re-adopting lockdown for December. Politicians as well as anxious businesses are aware that it is not just a family Christmas that is under threat but the jobs than depend on the hospitality and shopping days that lead up to 25 December. “A lot of colleagues will reluctantly give the government one more chance on lockdown. But if we get to the end of lockdown and it hasn’t made much difference and the government says it wants everyone to go into Tier 3, then they might find that difficult. A lot of people” Sir Graham Brady concludes “are near the end of their tether.”

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