Artillery Row Sketch

The unmasked avengers

Maggie Throup sticks her head above the parapet alone

Down periscope! Dive! Dive! Dive! It was time to do something that Tory backbenchers didn’t like, and so, with the courage that defines Boris Johnson’s government, the front bench had disappeared.

Obviously there was no sign of the prime minister. Neither could we see Sajid Javid, whose department was pushing the emergency Covid regulations through Parliament with great haste on Tuesday. He would say, perhaps, that he took his lumps on Monday when he announced the plans.

And so, on the burning deck whence all but she had fled, we found just Maggie Throup, the new vaccines minister. There wasn’t even anyone present to show moral support.

She’d come to make the case for mandatory facemasks and isolation for vaccinated people who have come into contact with the new Omicron variant of Covid that is all the rage this Christmas. Perhaps, seeing her all alone out there, her Conservative colleagues would show mercy.

“As he will appreciate, we are in a difficult situation”. Swayne did not, in fact, look like he appreciated this at all.

Or perhaps not. She made it three sentences into her opening speech before Sir Desmond Swayne intervened, demanding a rebuttal of Jenny Harries, the Health Security Agency chief executive, who had suggested people might want to think twice about having fun in the current circumstances.

Throup however lacked the authority to issue brutal slapdowns or stinging rebukes. She was there to hold the line and read the words in front of her. “As he will appreciate, we are in a difficult situation,” she replied. Swayne did not, in fact, look like he appreciated this at all.

Mark Harper had another go, and Throup ducked again. Rachael Maskell, for Labour, turned the question around, asking why the government wasn’t following Harries’ advice. On the Tory benches, this suggestion was not treated with a huge amount of respect. Steve Baker demanded to know why Throup didn’t feel able to comment on public officials “going out and taking a position that is at odds with the government’s public policy”.

Throup decided to get her head down and just push on to the finish line. “I reiterate that I cannot speak for other people,” she said, in an unusual approach for someone who was, at that moment, acting as a spokeswoman for the government.

Tory MPs were channeling the spirit of Nelson Mandela

But that’s not an easy job these days. For the last few months, we have had three sets of health advice: there’s been the stuff that was published, the contradictory stuff that Javid said in TV interviews, and the behaviour modelled by ministers up to and including Johnson. It’s a bit late for Tory MPs to start complaining about anyone else freelancing.

Some comment was passed online that, as they sat debating measures to fine anyone not wearing a facemask in a shop or on a train, few of the Conservative MPs were wearing masks themselves. But that is to misunderstand them. Aside from Throup, none of the Tories present supported the proposals. Their bare faces were a sign of civil disobedience, a courageous protest in the spirit of Nelson Mandela, if Mandela had spent 27 years in prison because he objected to slightly annoying public health measures.

The reason the job had been left to Throup was that the measures were in no danger of being voted down. Pretty much the only people in the chamber were members of the Covid Recovery Group of awkward squad Tories.

The best training for dealing with difficult Tory MPs is trying to get a toddler out of the house in a hurry. There are pointless questions, screaming tantrums, and long periods of refusing to move. In this debate there was something magnificently pre-school as MPs discussed whether they should have to wash their hands and why, if they did agree to wash their hands, they should have to do anything else.

Craig Mackinlay said it was “a gross absurdity” that someone would have to put a mask on to visit an off-licence but could then go to a party “with 100 people or perhaps more—perhaps an infinite number of people”. This has presumably been allowed in the hope that if an infinite number of people attend a party they will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.

Some of the backbenchers seemed to be under the impression that having a pandemic was in some way a policy choice, rather than a problem with which the government was wrestling. Swayne told the chamber that “the principal incentive to get vaccinated” was to avoid having to isolate, which seems to imply he thinks all this stuff about people dying is a bit overblown.

It’s easy to mock them, something for which the Sketch remains regularly grateful. But, as several of them pointed out, these rules are not a small deal, and it is parliament’s job to make sure they’re well drafted. As we saw last year, the police are quite capable of over-enthusiasm when it comes to handing out fines. “This is something that the public should be concerned about,” Steve Brine said. “We are making an impact on their lives today, and it is a disgrace that this House is so empty.”

To Baker, it was an issue of “the kind of nation or civilization we are creating”. Taking away personal freedoms was, he argued, a great wickedness. “This is a fundamental choice between heading towards Heaven and heading towards Hell,” he said.

That is indeed the journey we all face. But the polling suggests that most people want to put that trip off for a little longer, and are willing to see facemasks enforced if it might help.

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