Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, spoke to me about his amendment to require a parliamentary vote on all future coronavirus measures, and how the mood of his parliamentary colleagues has changed since March. He told me:
- He believes the Government will cave on his request, and reach a compromise with him
- The mood has changed, and most Tory backbenchers now favour a more balanced approach
- The Swedish example is much-referenced amongst colleagues and can’t be dismissed
- The tipping point came recently when new restrictions started being introduced
- The longer we go on, the more sceptical the party is becoming
- He would not vote for another national lockdown, and a “very significant number” of Tory MPs wouldn’t either
What was the mood on the Conservative backbenches back at the first lockdown announcement in March, and how has it changed since?
I think like most people in the country my colleagues were pretty apprehensive then. We were facing a new virus, nobody knew how it would behave. There was plausible speculation that it could rapidly overwhelm intensive care capacity in the NHS, and of course the House of Commons was about to go off for an Easter recess. So it did seem reasonable at that point to grant emergency powers to ministers to be able to do what needed to be done if there were terrible pressures with which the NHS couldn’t cope.
We did that, perhaps some of us with a heavier heart than others, but were prepared to accept it as a set of temporary measures.
I think the mood has changed over time. Many of us have been making the case for sensible, cautious opening, since April. Certainly it was pretty obvious back then that you could allow open air markets to operate, and garden centres, all things that could have reduced the economic damage and also helped to give people who have been locked away in their houses for too long a little bit of interest and some fresh air. So all of that could have been done much more quickly than it was.
But increasingly, some sectors like aviation and the events sector have been completely put out of business by the restrictions. As that has become apparent, and sections of the economy have been shut down for a very long period of time, more and more of my colleagues are spending time in their constituencies talking to constituents who are losing their jobs, losing their livelihoods, people who have built up businesses over many years and are seeing them failing, and that is changing the mood. People are recognising that there is a balance to be struck here. We all want to encourage the safest approach in terms of hand hygiene and social distancing (most people have shown they’re quite willing to do their bit) but it’s got to be balanced with the recognition that there are other downsides if you overdo the restrictions.
So what percentage of Tory MPs are sceptical of the Government approach?
I think it would be fair to say that most of my colleagues recognise that there is a balance to be found, and that it isn’t really plausible to say that we will do everything that can possibly be done to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and disregard everything else.
So I think the more people understand the projections of horrifically high numbers of deaths that might happen as a result of cancers that have gone undiagnosed and untreated for far too long — I’ve seen projections of 30,000 deaths from that cause — or people who should have had medical treatment following a cardiac arrest and haven’t: these are problems being stored up for the future. And if you add to that the social costs and the economic costs that are accumulating — I think a growing number of people recognise, we can’t assume that there will be a miraculous vaccine that is 100% effective that will come into play in the New Year. We have to work on the premise that we might have to live with this virus in this form for a very long time to come. We can all hope that it might mutate to something less pernicious; we can hope that it might burn out of its own accord; but in the mean time we’ve got to make sure people can live their lives, both their normal social and family interactions and they can get on with earning a living.
How important has the Swedish example been amongst Conservative colleagues?
I think people have been interested in the Swedish example for a long time, but going back to May/June it was still possible for people to say, ‘wait and see, it might all go horribly wrong’. I guess where we are now it is possible to see that the Swedish approach appears to have resulted in a picture where the infection rate was much higher than here in June and July and is now falling quite rapidly, whereas countries that did have hard lockdowns like the United Kingdom we’ve now got rates of infection that seem to be rising quite strongly. So I don’t think many people now are dismissing the Swedish evidence in the way that some people felt they could earlier in the year.
What was the tipping point when it became more mainstream to be sceptical?
I think probably the tipping point came… once it became apparent that there were going to be new restrictions introduced.
I think people can accept quite a lot and were prepared to make sacrifices as long as they can see that the end was in sight — as it start to look like this might come in cycles, and the suggestion from some people that you could have another hard lockdown, I think people lose patience with that.
Is there any chance of a rebellion being successful?
I’m very hopeful that the Government will accept the case that I’ve been putting. I know many members of the Government themselves have felt quite uneasy about the extent to which the Government has acted without parliamentary approval. I very much hope that we can come to a sensible accommodation where for the big national policy interventions there is an understanding that they will, necessarily, be debated and voted on by Parliament before they can come into effect.
I’ve been in discussions with the Chief Whip, I hope that we are going to reach an accommodation. I think there is a growing recognition that there needs to be more scrutiny and more parliamentary involvement. I very much hope that we will reach the point where it is a part of the Government’s motion that provides for that scrutiny and parliamentary approval by votes, and that I don’t have to push my amendment and ask my colleagues to join me in a division against the Government.
Are you disappointed in Boris Johnson?
All governments are prone to bad habits. The habit of getting away without scrutiny, not being held accountable, is very attractive for governments. So it’s not entirely surprising that, having started off legislating by decree in the coronavirus measures, that ministers have got into the habit of doing that. But it isn’t acceptable, it isn’t the way we are used to doing government, and it’s not appropriate in a free country and parliamentary democracy like the United Kingdom.
Is the business of parliamentary politics even possible with social distancing restrictions?
It is much, much harder. The House of Commons is still— for reasons that elude me— adhering to the old 2 metre social distancing rule, not even the 1m plus that the rest of the country has been asked to observe for several months now. So that leads to the chamber being very sparsely populated, and then the normal social interactions, with one chair at each table in Portcullis House and a couple of chairs at the big tables at the tea room, it just makes it much harder to keep in touch, much harder to keep on top of what is going on. I very much hope that we move on quickly, because it is holding back parliamentary scrutiny and that is bad for the country.
If there was a vote on a full second national lockdown tomorrow, what would happen?
I would vote against a full national lockdown. I think the first lockdown was reasonable because of the concern at the time that NHS critical care capacity could be overwhelmed. I don’t think lockdowns get rid of Covid-19, all they can do is defer the moment when the infection spreads.
Would the vote be won? I suspect that if the Government wanted a full national lockdown it would win the vote… I think there would be a very significant number of Conservative members of parliament who would vote against a full national lockdown. The responses that I’ve had from members of the public and in particular my own constituents have been overwhelmingly positive.
I think people are in the mood when they want to be treated as adults. They have been prepared to take the virus seriously, but they expect to be able to use their common sense and judgement, they don’t expect to have their lives micro-managed by government.
The longer we go on, the more sceptical people are becoming about the value of full national lockdowns.