The election of Lindsay Hoyle as Commons Speaker in 2019 was, in large part, about MPs choosing to put means before ends. The average member of parliament wanted to keep the innovations of Hoyle’s predecessor John Bercow – the family-friendly measures such as the House of Commons crèche, and the greater powers for parliament in general and backbenchers in particular – but without the former speaker’s perceived excesses. These included Bercow’s habit of telling MPs exactly what he thought of them, his tendency to break with precedent, and the belief that he did double duty as parliament’s referee and as a committed participant in its Brexit debates. Ultimately, MPs weren’t willing to put up with Bercow’s means – his behaviour – to achieve the ends.
This explains, too, why Conservative MPs were willing to vote for Hoyle – a Labour MP whose Chorley seat, a perennial marginal, would surely have fallen to the Tories in 2019. (The major parties do not, by tradition, stand in the Speaker’s seat.) But now the relationship between the Speaker and Boris Johnson’s government is growing increasingly like that between Bercow and Theresa May when she was prime minister. On 14 June Hoyle went so far as to accuse the government of misleading the House by informing the country about the delayed end of Covid restrictions not through parliament but via a Downing Street press conference.
However angry Hoyle might be, there is little he can meaningfully do about it. When the government of the day has a healthy majority in parliament, even a Commons speaker willing to engage in unorthodox tactics – which Hoyle isn’t – cannot force it to treat the place with much respect.
Hoyle isn’t the only disgruntled member of parliament, and most of Johnson’s biggest critics – at least on the subject of lockdown – are in his own party. While the Prime Minister’s approach is rooted both in the science and in the substance of his earlier pledges, many Tory MPs think the government has been captured by the concerns of public health officials and scientists.
One minister recently asked me, in a state of considerable despair, when, if ever, the British public’s support for locking down might end. (Opinion polls consistently show most people favour lockdowns and a recent survey found the same was true for delaying the lifting of restrictions.) A special adviser told me the country had lost its nerve and now looks hopelessly and helplessly for the state to tell it when and whether to take a risk. A back-bench MP grumbled that a Tory government ought to be having a “grown-up” conversation with the nation about living with Covid, rather than announcing extensions to restrictions.
This should be expected from the organised lockdown-sceptics in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG). But the decision to extend Covid restrictions by at least a further four weeks means criticism of Johnson’s approach has, in the words of one loyal MP, “crossed the species barrier: it’s not just the usual suspects complaining now”. In recent days, long-term critics of lockdowns such as Mark Harper and Steve Baker, the chairman and deputy chairman of the CRG, have been joined by Theresa May and many others.
[see also: Leader: An avoidable delay]
Tory MPs worry the latest delay means the UK may never fully exit lockdown. They fear that – whether through limitations on foreign travel, restrictions on the size of gatherings, social distancing indoors or continued advice to work from home – the world of January 2020 will never be recovered.
The British population remains astonishingly keen to be vaccinated compared to the global average. But even with high uptake, the UK is unlikely to achieve herd immunity through inoculation by the end of the year, and British hospitals tend to struggle during the winter months with more admissions. The extension of restrictions in the summer could be a prelude to lockdown in the winter.
On top of that, the government’s fate may rest on the extent to which the economy is permanently damaged. Some MPs are concerned that the public’s willingness to tolerate further delays this summer is a sign that they will also have no desire to go out and enjoy former pleasures in the winter – or, for that matter, ever again.
But for other MPs the source of their unease is deeper. This is a government enjoying a healthy lead in the opinion polls, and facing a Labour leader whose stock at Westminster is currently astoundingly low. (Almost all Labour MPs are either depressed or angry about the leadership, and many believe Keir Starmer is unlikely to survive long past the party’s annual gathering in the autumn.) Even when Starmer was polling well, the depth of Labour’s defeat in 2019 meant the Conservatives were almost certain to win the next election.
Yet, some Conservatives ask, what’s the point of being this popular in the middle of a parliament? The reason governments are usually languishing in the polls midway through their term of office isn’t some mystical quality associated with the fallow years of a parliament; it is that they use the period between elections to push ahead with radical and controversial plans.
There is plenty of appetite in the cabinet for having difficult conversations with the country about the level of risk we should tolerate to end restrictions, or indeed about the measures we should take to curb carbon emissions or to pay back the debts accrued during the pandemic. But some MPs fear that this hunger runs out at the very top: that the Prime Minister will never want to confront the public with hard truths, even about any grand plans to reshape the economy.
The failure to unlock on 21 June, some Tory MPs believe, is a sign they will ultimately fail to do anything much with the majority they won in 2019 – beyond irritating Lindsay Hoyle.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web