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11 November 2020

Why the new Covid Recovery Group is a warning to Boris Johnson

One of the Conservative government’s biggest problems is its poor parliamentary management.  

By Stephen Bush

Conservative MPs have formed a new group, the Covid Recovery Group, chaired by Mark Harper (David Cameron’s final chief whip) and Steve Baker (a serial tormentor of Conservative governments). Their mission? To move government policy towards a new strategy of “living with the virus” rather than perpetual lockdowns. 

In many ways, the group has come into being just as it has lost its central purpose: good news about a vaccine underlines that lockdowns will not endure in perpetuity. Whether through a vaccine or palliative treatments, the age of Covid-19 will end. 

There is, of course, a third way that it ends: fatigue. In the highly unlikely event that by next summer medical science has not advanced, whether through treatment or vaccination, to a point where the novel coronavirus no longer risks overwhelming healthcare systems, I think it’s highly likely that public support for lockdowns would collapse, just as Americans never fled cities at the same speed and volume as they did during the first polio epidemic in the 1950s. 

But the positive news on a vaccine – and the less exciting, but equally important developments in how we treat Covid-19 – make that third option rather unlikely. So why is the mood on the Conservative benches so febrile? Why, as Katy Balls explains, are Tory backbenchers getting mutinous about the proposed rollout of a vaccine to the vulnerable and to health workers first, rather than to the young who could “restart” the economy?

It comes back to Downing Street’s biggest problem at Westminster: its poor parliamentary management. The reality is that the questions Conservative MPs are asking about the government’s coronavirus strategy do have answers – they just aren’t answers that Downing Street has been minded to provide in a transparent and regular fashion to anyone, and to Conservative MPs in particular. 

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[see also: The end of the affair: how Tory MPs are falling out of love with Boris Johnson]

Part of that springs from No 10’s well-advertised contempt for MPs. Dominic Cummings doesn’t like them, Boris Johnson is not particularly clubbable, and there is no one in Downing Street who really does parliamentary outreach. Scientific breakthroughs, and Labour’s support for continued lockdowns means that will likely have little impact on the fight against coronavirus, but as the government contemplates the rest of its agenda, it will have reasons to regret not taking more time to cultivate and communicate with its own MPs.