On this side of the Atlantic, we’ve gone from worrying about which one of the Government’s tiers we might be in tomorrow to the bad old days of full lockdown in less than a week. We all know COVID-19 is an incredibly fast moving virus that necessitates quick decision making, but the speed at which the Government was prepared to completely abandon its commitment to a regional approach to tackling the virus came as a shock to many, not least several MPs on the Conservative backbenches.
It’s been clear for some time that there are a growing number of anti-lockdown rebels on the Government benches and their list of grievances seems to grow every week. Regardless of whether the decision to implement a new lockdown was right or wrong, it represented the latest and most significant U-turn yet in a strategy that has been defined by them. Just two weeks ago the Government was pinning all its hopes on regional restrictions, in opposition to Labour’s calls for a two-week ‘circuit breaker’, and accusing Keir Starmer of wanting to ‘turn out the lights’ on the economy. This week they asked their own MPs to vote for just that, only for twice as long.
Those who believed in the regional strategy also saw it as essential to limiting economic damage over winter. Now a second period of economic recession is all but guaranteed and the Chancellor has been forced into yet another U-turn over the furlough scheme, which was extended first to the end of the second lockdown and then yesterday, extended again all the way through to Spring 2021. Again just two weeks ago, the Government was standing behind its decision to bring the scheme to a close as part of the Chancellor’s ‘Winter Plan’. Certain jobs, the line was, were just not viable in the new world and redundancies were inevitable. Now it would seem they’re suddenly worth saving again. This will be scant consolation to those who have already lost theirs and has been met by growing incredulity from the public about our collective ability to afford it.
For those backbenchers tired of defending the Government’s increasingly erratic strategy, a flashpoint presented itself on Wednesday in the form of the vote in the Commons to approve the second lockdown. With Labour’s backing, there was never really a chance of the Government losing the vote, but more than 30 Conservative MPs rebelled and another 21 abstained from voting. Added those together, that’s the Government’s ‘whopping’ majority potentially at risk.
Despite this, as policies go, the lockdown maintains an unusually high level of popularity across all sections of the public. But it already feels different to the first. In contrast to March, there seems to be significantly less fear motivating people to stay home. Rather than everyone bolting straight for safety as we did when the first lockdown was announced, Wednesday seemed to see more people than ever heading out to enjoy their least day of freedom. Moreover, the darker, longer nights and increased economic uncertainty for many makes it hard to see this popularity lasting, should the lockdown be extended further in December.
And this will undoubtedly be the next flashpoint for the Tory rebels. The Government has once again committed itself to something it cannot guarantee, by pledging that Lockdown 2 will end on 2nd December. When the almost inevitable U-turn happens, Tory MPs (who’ve spent all month maintaining to an increasingly fed-up public that lockdown is almost over) will be asked by the Government to effectively cancel Christmas. The speculation is that this would see the ranks of rebel MPs swell to something more like 80. This would make it abundantly clear that the Government is reliant on opposition support, something that rarely ends well.
With the prospect of a third lockdown always lurking in the background too, it’s going to be a long winter for us all. The Zoom quizzes, Netflix binges and three word slogans may be back, but the national camaraderie of March and April seems like a distant memory.