By Asad Mirza
For once maverick Boris Johnson seems to have taken a correct step, but he faced public and his partymen’s ire over the decision.
To counter the Corona pandemic, different countries adopted different strategies and took different safety measures, almost everywhere these steps were supported and adhered to willingly by their citizens. However, the response of the British public and some politicians too in this regard seems to be quite different. Many had opposed the earlier lockdown rules and last week they also resisted the new safety measures proposed by the Johnson-administration.
Last week the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a rebellion by his own party’s backbenchers in the House of Commons. Members of his party refused to vote in favour of the new three-tier coronavirus system that replaced the national lockdown in England from December 3 onwards.
The proposals passed as expected despite the level of dissent from within the Conservative Party. With Labour MPs whipped by the leadership to abstain on the vote, 291 MPs in total voted in favour and 78 against the new rules.
55 Tory MPs opposed the plans, which makes for Johnson’s biggest rebellion since the general election. The previous largest was over the 10 p.m. curfew, opposed by 44 Tories.
Cause of rebellion
The issue that sparked the revolt was supposed to be core to Conservative Party values — freedom and the health of the economy. Mainly the tussle is over matters of economics, allowing people to do Christmas shopping and relax at restaurants and pubs without any restrictions. Under Johnson’s plan, much of England will still remain under stringent rules after the national lockdown’s expiry on December 2. People across the UK will face limits on household mixing, in addition to tougher rules for pubs and restaurants, which are already weathering the impact of lockdown, in addition to social mixing rules.
Most British feel that the government is curbing their right to freedom by imposing stricter rules on shopping, visiting restaurants, friends and families. “Freedom is not an absolute, but it should be regarded as precious,” Graham Brady, a senior Conservative told the House of Commons during the debate on new restrictions. “If government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they’re acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary,” he said as Johnson looked on. “I believe the government has failed to make that compelling case.”
Boris Johnson had earlier appealed to his colleagues to hold their nerve and back the restrictions until vaccines becomes widely available. “The end is in sight,” Johnson said. “All we need to do now is to hold our nerve until the vaccines are indeed in our grasp and indeed being injected into our arms.”
MPs said the new three-tier restrictions are too harsh and risk damaging the economy. They also complained that areas with low rates of infection would be grouped together under the same strict rules as regions where the virus is still spreading.
During the parliamentary debate ahead of the key vote on new Covid-19 regulations, lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs stressed that the restrictions would have a further negative impact on the economy, education, mental health and more.
One of Johnson’s backbenchers said the “stab at an impact assessment” this week had “all the hallmarks of an essay crisis”. The cost-benefit analysis released on Monday was criticised for containing little new or detailed information.
Labours Party’s stand on the vote
Interestingly, the vote also showed fissures in the opposition’s Labour Party. 15 Labour MPs led by Jeremy Corbyn also broke their party whip by voting against the proposals. Some opposed on the basis of wanting a ‘zero Covid’ strategy; others due to lack of financial aid.
Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s chief in his speech during the debate said that the prime minister “pretends that the restrictions might not be in place for long” despite knowing that “tough restrictions will be needed until a vaccine is rolled out — and that may be months away”.
Starmer stressed the need for continued restrictions, and said that as it would not be in the national interest to vote against these restrictions. So the labour will allow the regulations to pass. But termed this as another wasted opportunity.
He described the steps taken by Johnson-government as mere short-termism, and described Johnson as a PM stuck between his backbenchers and the national interest.
Public response to restrictions
The response of the British public and politicians, both, shows that unlike Indians, the British just want to continue their normal life with no alarm for the Covid threat, except those who have been affected. The latest official figures on Covid deaths in the UK put the number at 60,000. However, the core British value seems to be money and merriment. Unlike Indians, which across the spectrum observed their festivals in a restrained manner, plus the Muslims in the UK who celebrated two Eids under restricted conditions, a majority of the British public wish to celebrate Christmas with normal gaiety and festivities.
Perhaps the Brits could have learnt a lesson from the Italians, who are able to ride over the worst of the first wave of Covid’s devastation, by adopting tougher safety measures.
On the one hand the Britishers bemoan the worsening economic conditions, but they don’t seem to be in a mood to hear and obey the government regarding Covid precautions and in addition blame the government for not providing enough economic packages to the business class. For once the maverick Boris Johnson seems to have taken a prudential step to safeguard the health and lives of the Britishers, but a vast majority seems in no mood to listen.
For the lawmakers, a winter of more tough decisions about further restrictions on people’s movements and whether to raise taxes or cut spending to pay for the government’s response to the pandemic lies ahead. The risk for Johnson is that Tories who rebelled on December 1 will be emboldened to do so again, potentially inflicting future defeats. A sizeable Tory revolt will embarrass Johnson and could foreshadow other parliamentary battles, which he has to face, including over the terms of Britain’s Brexit divorce from the European Union.
Also the manner in which the British public and politicians have responded to the government’s safety measures, have dented their image. Britishers who are usually considered to be a stickler for rules have emerged in this episode as the one who consider gaiety and merriment more paramount than their own safety and to restore their earlier image of being sensible citizens will take a lot of initiatives on their part.
(The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)