Artillery Row

The strategy behind the Covid Recovery Group

MPs fighting the lockdown are sharpening their swords for an almighty battle with No.10

Old Brexit-watchers will recognise the familiar organisational structure. A Steering group of 11 MPs (and one Peer on this occasion) who devise strategy, surrounded by a less committed group who can sometimes be called upon to troop through the lobbies against their own Government. With a WhatsApp Group, to keep the troops informed, motivated and feeling involved. And also, to allow the group’s leadership to see in realtime what the mood of their supporters is. As one veteran of the Brexit struggle put it to me: “WAGs of people who all have a stake in it are the best means for A-B testing yet devised. You can work out a line that ‘commands the room’ in minutes. This is hugely helpful as it means you go armed with secure support when you go off to No 10 or to see the Chief [Whip]”.

The Chair of the Covid Recovery Group is Mark Harper, a former Chief Whip himself, while the second in command is the old Brexit general and prolific organiser Steve Baker, who stepped down as chair of the ERG in February. Back then he said he wanted to “return to certain economic issues which I consider as least as important to the future of the country as exiting the EU”. Mr. Baker is scathing about Keynesian easy money and the UK’s chronic levels of Quantitative Easing. That was before the Government’s response to the Covid crisis. Since then the Bank of England has not exactly held back with QE.

The group may be structured like the ERG but contains many who are not its usual Brexiteer suspects. Mark Harper’s vote against lockdown was his second rebellion in 15 years and interestingly the Steering Group contains three MPs who actually voted in favour of the second (England-wide) lockdown: Dr Ben Spencer, a psychiatrist, Harriett Baldwin, a former FCO minister and Nus Ghani, a former transport minister who is perhaps best known for valiantly defending the crisis-ridden HS2 project from the dispatch box. They all, intriguingly, voted “aye”. Nus Ghani says she voted in favour but “put the government on 28 days notice” and adds: “They need to present a long term strategy to manage the virus.” I hear Ghani has privately told colleagues she is unlikely to back a future shutdown.

The CRG didn’t whip their MPs hard to vote against lockdown but got No.10 to show its trump card ready for the next vote

Two MPs of the new intake who voted for the current set of restrictions spoke about why they joined the group. Simon Fell, the MP for Barrow and Furness told me: “The lockdown has placed incredible burdens on families and businesses in the north. We need to get out of this damaging cycle of lockdowns and ensure that when decisions are taken they are based on a fair and thorough understanding of all the impacts of closing society.” Imran Ahmad Khan the MP for Wakefield said after the current lockdown ended his constituency must be returned to a tier that is “proportionate to the risk of the virus and the economic impacts wrought by it.” A third MP added: “The state system should now know they cannot bamboozle us any longer”.

The plan is to build the broadest possible coalition ready for the next vote, and the Steering Group includes a mixture of those who are opposed to lockdowns on principle, and those who would support measures if they were shown to be effective. One source says most MPs in the group don’t want to be rebels but it could easily become a rebel faction if No.10 don’t take them seriously. There is frustration that up until now the Government has tried to terrify MPs into supporting lockdown measures with doom-laden graphs that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

In their official aims the CRG are calling on the Government to adopt their “Three Guiding Principles”. First, they want a “full cost-benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis”. They say lockdowns cost lives, pointing to the increase in cancer deaths, mental health problems and huge economic damage. Second, they want an “end the monopoly on advice of government scientists” and say No.10 and the Department of Health should allow competing experts to play devil’s advocate by challenging the prevailing view. The deputy leader Steve Baker went into No.10 along with data scientists to challenge the rationale behind the lockdown just before the vote. A source aware of the details of the meeting suggested the Government could not defend some of their data and dropped it soon afterwards.

One MPs said the pained faces of their colleagues going through the Aye lobby reminded them of the look they had voting for war

In their third demand, the group quotes a SAGE statistic which says for Test and Trace to work it needs to reach 80% of people. They are calling for the system to rely more on local health teams to reach the unreached contacts. It’s clear from this last point that the Government would find it hard to categorise them as a libertarian “unlock and throw away the key” kind of group. Steve Baker said: “What these MPs want is to stand up for science and truth, that’s a decent and noble thing to do and I am proud of them.”

Having ex-government loyalists in their Steering Group is obviously good from a PR point of view but this presents a problem. Many of the ERG Spartans grew progressively thicker skins during the Brexit wars as the pressure – and fire – from their Tory colleagues got harder and harder to accept. In the end most of the massed ranks of Leave MPs fell victim to it and even a number of the ERG’s Steering Group fell under the sway of Mrs. May and her EU deal at the third time of asking. On the final vote just 28 Tories resisted it – but this time the group would need a dozen more backers to overturn Johnson’s 80-seat-majority and force him to rely on opposition votes. One CRG MP explained the strategy of including so many lockdown agnostics in their decision-making group: “In any election you can’t just focus on your base, you need to go over the hill and get the swing voters onside”.

As well as getting swing voters in the Steering Group there are some in their company who already bear the scars of resisting lockdown. Chris Green MP resigned as a ministerial aide in October over the Covid restrictions and was very happy to put his name on the record as a planned rebel in the latest shutdown. (That isn’t an obvious point – It would not be strange to find an MP who resigned over a policy still being extremely reticent about revealing they were, in fact, going to follow through on the logic of their decision.) But then there are others like Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee. Brady is said to be against lockdown on principle but once upon a time he was against Theresa May’s deal on principle, until he was persuaded to vote for it twice. This, of course, is not Brexit but a global pandemic but it does give an idea of the strong resolve needed to beat the Government.

The CRG did not whip their MPs hard to vote against the England lockdown but engaged constructively with No.10 so that, in the words of one, Downing St. would show its trump card. After discussions with some of the scientists who are advising No.10, the group circulated the Government’s best argument for the lockdown via a 90-member broadcast list on WhatsApp. This probably had the effect of dampening the rebellion – only 32 Tories voted against – but the group calculated that it would both show the group to be reasonable – not least to the whips’ narks always tolerated on such WAGs – and give themselves time to have a rebuttal ready when it came to a second vote. One MP admitted many on both sides found the decision almost intolerable: “It’s a life and death decision both ways. The pained faces of MPs going through the Aye lobby [in favour of lockdown] reminded me of how MPs looked when voting for war.”

The argument which was advanced by Sir Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust and then circulated to lockdown sceptic MPs via WhatsApp suggested that if the R rate was only slightly above 1 and a lot of people already had the disease, it would still lead to a high level of cases and cause a large number of hospitalisations. Any delay and there would need to be a much longer and harder lockdown. Along with sending the pro-lockdown argument to their supporters the CRG suggested MPs should see more data and make up their own minds.

With the possibility of a third lockdown still very much a possibility, sceptical MPs have been busy “fattening the pig” before market day by publicly making the case against lockdowns.  Steve Baker has been tabling a series of questions to Ministers on the quality of their data and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told Radio 4’s World at One yesterday that the first lockdown caused  “massive scarring of business and huge offloading of jobs” and warned it would happen again with the second lockdown, adding: “the people that will suffer the most are the poorest. They are already suffering, and we’ve got to balance the economy with these health needs.”

One of the strongest arguments against the restrictions at the time was the fact that there was no vaccine and no guarantee an effective one could be produced. But after the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna breakthrough Matt Hancock can make the argument that “letting coronavirus rip”, as he puts it, is highly irresponsible when “the scientific cavalry”, as the Prime Minister puts it, is about to charge to our rescue. It would be hard to resist the argument that the country, which has already shed so many civil liberties, should be free to resume normal life at the expense of “hundreds of thousands of deaths” if there is a mass rollout programme just weeks away. The CRG can, of course, politely remind the Government that their estimates of how long things are going to take, not to mention their death forecasts, have not been entirely accurate. It remains to be seen if the CRG can be as accurate in its threats to the whips as the ERG proved ultimately itself to be.

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