Maybe it was because most minds were concentrated on the results of the election taking place in the US. Or maybe it was that all the arguments had already been made when the prime minister had given his statement on the second national lockdown on Monday. Either way, this week’s prime minister’s questions felt curiously underpowered. Rather as if Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson were going through the motions, with both taking it as read that it would be yet another easy points win for the Labour leader.
Still, no politician has ever let repetition be a hindrance to what they are saying, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. So after inviting Johnson to agree that it wasn’t for any candidate in the US election to declare which votes counted and which didn’t – like all good populists, Boris believes you can have too much democracy, so he predictably declined to answer – Starmer moved on to the business of the lockdown.
What had taken the government so long with this particular U-turn? After all, it had been two weeks since the PM had introduced a three-tiered regional system. Boris ummed and ahhed and tugged at his hair, aware that his more coiffed appearance on Monday had widely been seen as a sign of weakness, and proceeded to talk nonsense. He had been absolutely right to introduce regional lockdowns and they had been working brilliantly up until the moment he suddenly realised they weren’t working after all and that the infection rate was increasing across the country.
Perhaps Starmer was as confused as everyone else by that logic or just wasn’t in the mood for gloating. Winning an argument against Boris has become too easy. All you do is argue the opposite of what he says he will do and you’ll be proved right with a government climbdown in next to no time. So rather than making a big deal of Johnson’s clear failure of leadership and that the Tories were now adopting Labour policy, Starmer kept to some simple facts. If the government had implemented the two to three-week “circuit breaker” lockdown over half-term as Sage and he had recommended, there would have been fewer deaths and less damage to the economy. Simples. So what was the plan if the R value wasn’t below 1 by 2 December?
Here Boris struggled rather. While he could be sure that the lockdown regulations that parliament would be voting on later that afternoon would end on 2 December, he had no idea what might replace them if they had been insufficient in bringing down the rate of infection. Even he seems to have given up on Typhoid Dido’s test-and-trace system improving enough to bail him out, so all he could say was that he very much hoped the lockdown would work and it was political point-scoring to suggest it wouldn’t.
Which was slightly ungracious as it had been Starmer’s promise to vote for the government measures that would ensure they became law. But then Boris has never been noted for either his loyalty or gratitude. He ended by incongruously saying Keir ought to be more like Tony Blair, who had written a piece in the Daily Mail about lockdowns, test and trace and vaccines that could as easily have been written by the current Labour leader. No wonder Starmer looked startled. He had spent most of the last week fending off the Labour left who felt he was already far too much like Blair.
Seconds out, round three. Soon the two party leaders were slugging it out again for the debate on the new lockdown measures. Unsurprisingly, both Johnson and Starmer appeared even less enthusiastic or combative than they had earlier. Boris spent most of his time trying to dampen the concerns of the libertarians in his own party who were threatening to vote against him, rather than take pot shots at Labour, while Starmer delivered his stock speech on auto-pilot. It was all very under-powered.
Things picked up a bit when Theresa May was called as Johnson seemed to make a point of walking out the chamber the moment she started talking. There is little love lost between the two and May began by saying how she would be unable to vote with the government. She must have enjoyed that. Having been serially betrayed by Boris over the years, it was good to even things up – if only a little.
As so often, what was missing among the lockdown refuseniks was any sense of what they might vote for. How many Covid deaths a day were they prepared to accept to protect the economy? What alternatives to circuit breakers did they suggest, given that infection rates in regions under lockdown almost invariably only seemed to go up? Still, not having the answers has always been the backbenchers’ main privilege.
It was left to Matt Hancock to close the debate for the government. He too regretted the need for the lockdown restrictions and promised to think again about people’s right to play golf and tennis. He also hinted the government might back down on communal worship. No bad thing, as prayer is all we seem to have left. With Labour backing it, the motion passed easily with fewer than 40 Tory rebels. But few were in any doubt they’d all be back to debate the same thing in a month’s time.