How fast is too fast? That’s the question on Boris Johnson’s mind as another review of the lockdown looms later this week.
Ask a Conservative backbencher and you are as likely as not to be told that there is no such thing as too fast. With MPs due to have their first opportunity to debate the lockdown in the Commons and via Zoom today, an awkward squad have given this morning’s Telegraph notice that they will demand an easing of restrictions.
The charge sheet is by this stage familiar enough: the MPs fear that prolonging lockdown in its current form beyond this week risks irreparable damage to the economy and is an impingement too far on their constituents’ liberty.
Nor will Downing Street be surprised by the presence of Steve Baker, a man who considers it his solemn duty to disagree with his own government, at the vanguard. Writing for the paper, the Brexit minister offers a characteristically spirited libertarian critique – calling on Johnson to set out a clear roadmap out of the “absurd, dystopian and tyrannical” status quo of “house arrest by ministerial decree”. Considering Baker had tears in his eyes when he spoke in favour of the lockdown legislation in March, this is, if anything, mild criticism.
But Baker is not alone. Joining his crusade are Graham Brady and Charles Walker – shop stewards for Tory MPs of all persuasions as chair and secretary of the 1922 Committee. Every barometer of backbench opinion, be it contributions at PMQs, the words of the influential former European Research Group chair (Baker) or entreaties from the men in grey suits, suggests the overriding mood in the Prime Minister’s parliamentary party is one of restlessness. Conservative MPs want to see meaningful adjustments, and soon.
Will they get them? Michael Gove spoke of getting the economy moving at yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, and today’s FT carries details of a suite of measures drawn up by Whitehall, businesses and the unions to get workers back in offices – including a ban on hot-desking, staff canteens, sharing pens, and face-to-face meetings. Yet Thursday’s planned announcement of measures to ease lockdown has been postponed until Sunday, so as to give the Prime Minister more time to review the evidence.
Unfortunately for Conservative MPs, that evidence appears to point in only one direction, as Johnson will himself outline in a virtual speech to other world leaders today. “To win this battle, we must work together to build an impregnable shield around all our people, and that can only be achieved by developing and mass-producing a vaccine,” he will say. In the meantime, anything that increases the R number of the virus back above one is a hindrance, not a help. The uncomfortable truth for tribunes of Tory discontent is that they are asking for just that. And for now, at least, it appears there is no appetite in Downing Street to risk it.