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Since when were MPs experts on pandemics?

Monday 30 November 2020

A certain tribe of Conservative backbenchers is kicking up a fuss over new Covid restrictions. But this really isn’t a time – or a matter – for base politicking

One of my favourite political lines of 2020 was delivered on Friday’s Channel 4 News, by Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford. In a discussion of the government’s proposed new system of tiered Covid restrictions, to come into force after national lockdown ends in England on Wednesday, Rosindell offered this verdict: “I understand why it has to be done – but I think, when we look back, I fear it’s going to be seen as a huge over-reaction.”

So: to recap, the tiered structure of local measures that will be implemented from Thursday – if Boris Johnson can secure the backing of the Commons tomorrow – is both necessary and totally disproportionate.

Confused? Not as confused as Rosindell, who went on to insist, rather sweepingly, that “all the figures are being muddled up and inaccurately recorded as well”, and then to declare, in the manner of a 1970s public service announcement: “Let’s get Britain working again.”

What is so infuriating about such sloganeering is the presumption that those advocating continued emergency measures to suppress coronavirus infection have no care for the economy, or jobs, or future prosperity. As if the argument for a second national lockdown were wilfully and recklessly hostile to the interests of UK plc.

Yet there is an overwrought strand of Conservative instinct that detects incipient authoritarianism everywhere: and now that the menace of “Brussels bureaucracy” has been seen off by Brexit, it needs new enemies. Lockdowns, tiered restrictions and other supposed threats to our ancestral liberties – well, they fit the bill perfectly.

Indeed, it should be no surprise that there is a significant overlap between the so-called Coronavirus Recovery Group of libertarian Tory MPs and the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group – notably in the central role played in both by Steve Baker, ex-chairman of the ERG and presently deputy chairman of the self-styled corona-pimpernels.

It is less than a year since Johnson assumed the mantle of a latter day Margaret Thatcher, having secured the largest Conservative victory since 1987. This week, in spite of his working majority of 85, the PM more closely resembles the hapless John Major after the 1992 election, scrambling for the votes he will need tomorrow to win without having to plead for Labour’s support.

It has been an ignominious spectacle. On Saturday, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, published a long and lapidary essay in The Times, in which he made an uncompromising case both for the second lockdown now approaching its conclusion and the toughened tier system that is set to replace it.

As hard as such measures undoubtedly were, Gove wrote, they were essential to stop the NHS being overwhelmed in what are now assumed to be the final months before a vaccine is approved and becomes generally available. His message was aimed foursquare at mutinous Conservative MPs: “When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions.”

Within hours, however, Gove’s tough line had been supplanted by a spirit of concession – as the PM offered a series of sweeteners to the 70 or so Tory rebels. The review of the system on 16 December, he signalled, would be an opportunity to shift specific areas to a lower, less restrictive tier; and the entire structure could be dismantled in only nine weeks time, if MPs so decided. On Sunday, the government disclosed that it would offer more subsidies to the hospitality sector, which has been grievously affected by the pandemic.

Expect further demands today and tomorrow. Having tasted blood, the Tory sharks will take as many bites as they can out of the beleaguered prime minister in the next 24 hours – each snap of the jaws weakening the new system due to come into force later this week.

But are they right? The supposedly inviolable premise upon which the Conservative rebels operate is that lifting restrictions in and of itself will turbocharge economic recovery. Lift lockdown, relax the tiers and watch the British economy spring vigorously back into life. If only it were so simple.

According to a study by the IMF published last month: “By bringing infections under control, lockdowns may… pave the way to a faster economic recovery as people feel more comfortable about resuming normal activities. In other words, the short-term economic costs of lockdowns could be compensated through higher future economic activity, possibly even leading to positive net effects on the economy.”

In August, McKinsey & Co drew similar conclusions: “[T]he facts now show that the ultimate economic impact is not driven solely by lockdowns, whose economic effects have been highly varied. Lifting lockdown restrictions may not by itself be sufficient to restart growth.”

The common conclusion in such research is that the key variable in economic recovery is not the removal of restrictions but the restoration of public confidence. As long as infections are high – and, though they have declined during this lockdown, they are still high – the engine of growth will splutter and groan.

Premature relaxation of regulations, furthermore, will reliably lead to fresh surges of infection which, in turn, will suppress consumer confidence (witness, for instance, the present spike in Canada that followed poorly regulated social mixing over Thanksgiving on and around 12 October). What Baker, Rosindell et al should be lobbying for is not a hasty end to the tiering system but a test-and-trace system that is something other than an international disgrace, and a swift and orderly rollout of the vaccine.

Consider, too, what is happening right now, this very day, in the Commons, in the horse-trading between MPs and their whips – who, I hear, are informally offering rebels jobs in the forthcoming reshuffle in return for support in Tuesday’s vote. The intricacies of public health policy – literally, in this case, a matter of life and death – are being lost in the gossipy rancour of Westminster WhatsApp groups.

Does it have to be said that this is no way for an advanced nation to plot a route out of the pandemic? I think it does. It is often blithely proclaimed in such situations that “Parliament is sovereign” (Brexiteers used to say that a lot, before they decided that their true allegiance was to “the People”), In fact, sovereignty resides in the Queen-in-Parliament: that is to say, the Crown acting in tandem with the legislature.

The distinction is important. Parliament, quite rightly, does everything in its power to hold government to account: one of the systemic success stories of 2020 has been the performance of the Commons select committees, especially Health and Social Care under Jeremy Hunt, and Science and Technology, chaired by Greg Clark.

But there is a thin line between accountability and operational control. Witness the mess last year when the Commons tried to take over the nation’s Brexit policy by seizing control of the order paper (the setting of daily business in the House).

Witness, too, the ludicrous convention that has arisen since the Commons vote to endorse action against Saddam Hussein in 1998, whereby MPs effectively have a veto over the use of military force – a nonsense in an age when the sheer complexity of modern warfare requires governments to be more nimble than ever. The difference between legitimate parliamentary scrutiny and pre-emptive obstruction was perfectly demonstrated in 2013, when Labour MPs prevented David Cameron from taking action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his use of chemical weapons.

Seven years later, the parallel is striking. MPs are no more epidemiologists than they are military analysts. In an emergency, parliamentarians have a solemn responsibility to stop the government from acting autocratically, illegally or against the national interest. But they themselves have a corresponding duty not to make it impossible for ministers to steer a country through a crisis.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has surely made mistakes this year. But it would be a travesty if the group’s advice to Johnson and his colleagues were overruled by the bombastic amateurism of Tory backbenchers.

In the next 24 hours we shall see if Boris Johnson cares more about being a statesman or popular among his MPs. Better for the prime minister to depend upon Labour votes than to jeopardise lives and risk a third Covid wave – all in the name of something as transient as Conservative unity. As the Iron Lady herself said to President Bush Sr on the eve of the first Gulf War: “This is no time to go wobbly.”