Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph reports that the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs is now as many as 100 strong and enjoying increasing clout with Number 10. The return to tiers was, he claims, a concession to the rebels, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy with the result.
It all sounds a bit ungrateful, given that it’s not even a year since Boris Johnson personally won an 80-strong majority for his otherwise-doomed party. But many Tories feel that a national collapse is underway, because the Government cannot think its way out of lockdown. Last week, the Chief Whip finally persuaded the Prime Minister of the seriousness of the situation: there are now about 100 MPs in the “Covid group” of rebels. They wanted a local lockdown system, judged on clear criteria and answerable to parliamentary scrutiny.
What they got yesterday was intended to quell the mutiny. No more Vallance and Whitty horror shows, with blood-curdling slides drawn from data which falls apart on further scrutiny. No more “illustrations” or “scenarios” showing 50,000 cases a day or 4,000 daily deaths. In its place, new criteria for judging local lockdowns: virus infection levels, especially among the elderly. The rate of virus growth (or decline). Pressure on the NHS.
In theory, it’s just what lockdown sceptics asked for: a transparent, evidence-based way of judging the new system. But the way the map has been drawn has led even pro-lockdown MPs into revolt as many find their constituency under tougher restrictions than before lockdown. They ask why their constituency has been lumped with others – and how they can justify voting it through. “This is like one of these old colonial maps where they draw a marker pen through territory they don’t recognise,” says one MP.
The new system is riddled with maddening inconsistencies.
Kent is regarded as one homogeneous lump and been placed into Tier 3, having had no special restrictions before lockdown. All of Buckinghamshire has ended up in Tier 2, in spite of places like the Chilterns being almost as Covid-light as Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. York, too, is back in Tier 2 – in spite of having less Covid than before lockdown. In the Commons yesterday, MPs queued up to ask: where is the logic?
It’s looking like MPs will get a cost-benefit analysis, but not the one they’ve been pressing for.
No 10 has made one final offering: to publish assessments of what local lockdowns do to the economy, society and wider public health. This is intended to persuade MPs that the Prime Minister will now look at things in the round and judge local lockdowns by more than simply the virus levels. This would do much to assuage those who argue that officials should talk about risk to cancer treatment, or the chances of furloughed small businesses making it to Easter. But those who have seen the ideas for the report predict that it will be underwhelming, and unlikely to win over any wavering MPs.
In a press release put out by the Covid Recovery Group, Harriett Baldwin MP, a former minister, said:
I voted for the current lockdown on the basis that it would give us a 28-day period to develop a new and enduring strategy for living with the virus that doesn’t require us to keep having to live under cycles of damaging lockdowns and severe restrictions, and to reform NHS Test & Trace so that only the infectious individuals and their close contacts have to isolate.
Over 23 million of us were living under Tier 1 restrictions before the lockdown – that figure will be under 1 million in December. There is no logic whatsoever in having a month of lockdown only for people to have to live under an even more severe set of restrictions afterwards.
That’s why we must see the evidence, the data and the cost benefit analysis – published in full and on time – so that we can assess whether or not the current strategy is working, and make sure we know if we are being asked to vote for something with an end date and which will explicitly save more lives than it costs.
While Labour continues to support the Government’s Covid strategy no Tory rebellion can realistically succeed. However, relying on opposition MPs to bail you out is never a good look for a Prime Minister and often means his (or her) days are numbered. And what if Keir Starmer sniffs an opportunity and switches to opposing the measures? The new tier system, in which the majority of English citizens have been placed in a higher tier than they were before the four-week lockdown, looks to be a massive own-goal by Boris and is bound to poll badly. Starmer may conclude that opposing the measures – and calling for a continuing national lockdown instead – is a way to ingratiate himself with Labour’s traditional voters in the Midlands and the North who’ve been placed in Tier 3, particularly those that deserted the party for the Conservatives last December.
If Starmer does decide to abandon Boris the CRG will find itself in a strong position in the run-up to next week’s vote. Some realistic demands would be:
- More granular differentiation between tiers, so, for instance, the whole of Kent doesn’t have to be plunged into Tier 3 because there are over 500 cases per 100,000 people in Swale, even though there are only 120/100,000 in Ashford. (See MailOnline for the fury this has unleashed.)
- Meaningful reviews of the tiered restrictions every fortnight, followed by a Parliamentary vote, instead of asking MPs to approve the current arrangements until March of next year and place their faith in Matt Hancock to decide which areas to move in and out of different tiers.
- A proper cost-benefit analysis of the impact of the tiered restrictions so MPs can make an informed choice about whether to support them every two weeks.
- The replacement of Sir Patrick Vallance as Chief Scientific Officer with Prof Sunetra Gupta and Chris Whitty as Chief Medical Officer with Prof Carl Heneghan. Okay, maybe that would be too great a humiliation for the PM, but at the very least Gupta and Heneghan should be invited to join SAGE, alongside Dr Mike Yeadon, Dr Clare Craig, Prof Karol Sikora, Dr John Lee, Prof Ellen Townsend, Prof Allyson Pollock and Prof David Livermore.
If the stars align, we might just be looking at a turning point.
Stop Press: According to today’s Times, Boris faces a growing rebellion on his back benches and won’t be able to count on enough support to get his proposed measures through without Starmer’s help.