I woke up this morning to the news that a sufficient number of Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no confidence in Boris to Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, to trigger a confidence vote and it’s being held this evening. For those unfamiliar with the process, the threshold is 15% of Conservative MPs, which is 54.
According to the bookmakers, Boris is overwhelmingly likely to win this vote. Ladbrokes, for instance, is offering odds of 1/5 on a win and 10/3 on a loss. Assuming he prevails, there can’t be another confidence for at least a year. But even so, I think it’s worth reminding those Conservative MPs who now think the lockdowns were a mistake why they should stick with Boris. This is an argument I set out in the Spectator a few weeks ago.
Eighteen months ago, I wrote a column for this magazine saying I regretted having been such a Boris enthusiast for the past 40 years. As a lockdown sceptic, I was disillusioned by his role in the greatest interference in personal liberty in our history. Where was the mischievous, freedom-loving, Falstaffian character I’d grown to love? Oliver Hardy had turned into Oliver Cromwell.
Mercifully, Roundhead Boris was a temporary aberration. Indeed, the furrowed-browed, finger-wagging Prime Minister of those endless Downing Street press briefings turned out to be just another act in the Covid pantomime, with the Boris of old making whoopee behind the scenes. I am probably one of the few people in the country who was delighted to discover that he didn’t take the ludicrous coronavirus regulations seriously, even if he is the head of the government that came up with them. I will only regard the forthcoming Sue Gray report as ‘devastating’ for Boris if he doesn’t leap from its pages as the raspberry-blowing leader of the up-all-night, hard-drinking Downing Street fast set.
I’m not being wholly facetious. His rule-breaking is a good reason for keeping him in office because it makes it politically impossible for him to impose another lockdown. How can Boris ask the public to observe any more of those ridiculous restrictions when he flagrantly ignored them himself? Even if there is another wave and the leaders of the NHS start waving their shrouds about on the BBC, he will have no choice but to stick with his ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
Another argument is that even though Boris initially went along with the lockdown madness he did return to his senses sooner than most. After lifting nearly all the restrictions on 19 July last year in the teeth of hysterical opposition, he resisted attempts to browbeat him into reimposing them. That, finally, was the leader I voted for – and where Boris led, other presidents and prime ministers followed. Living with Covid is now the default strategy of the western world and China’s draconian, lock-them-down approach in Shanghai is seen as a grotesque overreaction instead of a blueprint. Boris isn’t quite up there with Florida governor Ron DeSantis in the pantheon of pandemic heroes, but he’s been better than 95 per cent of his peers.
Worth reading in full, obviously.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that if Boris loses the confidence vote and a leadership election is triggered, the joint favourite to succeed him is Jeremy Hunt, who has already said he will be “voting for change” this evening – code for “I will run against Boris if he loses this vote”.
Hunt recently shifted his position on the lockdown policy, telling Philip Davies and Esther McVey on their Sunday morning GB News show that he was never in favour of it:
I actually thought we could have avoided all lockdowns if we had been much quicker and set up test and trace as they did in South Korea and Taiwan. Those two places actually didn’t have any lockdowns in 2020 so that would have been my preferred route.
But as the Spectator‘s Steerpike reminded us, he was actually one of the most zealous lockdown enthusiasts in the House of Commons:
In February 2021, as his colleague Mark Harper was leading the Covid Recovery Group in demanding the removal of pandemic restrictions, Hunt was insisting that they stay until cases were below 1,000 a day. In October, Hunt welcomed a report by a joint parliamentary committee into Covid on which he sat as one of two chairs. The report itself said that the delay to impose a first lockdown last spring was ‘one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.’
Asked on Good Morning Britain about whether the UK should have locked down sooner he replied: “That’s what we conclude in the report, that we should have gone earlier.” And then, in December that same year, the onetime health minister also voted with the government on ‘Plan B’ and was not one of the 128 MPs who defied Boris Johnson’s ‘vaccine passport’ scheme.
Jeremy Hunt may now argue that he would have done things “differently” as PM during the pandemic. But it’s probably better to judge what he actually did do at the time, given his support for restrictions throughout Covid.
So the lockdown sceptics in the Parliamentary Conservative Party should ask themselves one question before casting their votes this evening: If Jeremy Hunt was PM instead of Boris, would another lockdown be more or less likely?
I know how I’d vote.
Stop Press: Nadine Dorries has posted a Twitter thread revealing that Hunt’s lockdown zealotry was even worse that I thought.
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