The Tory Covid wars aren't going away

8 December 2020

3:58 AM

8 December 2020

3:58 AM

The Covid wars in the Tory party aren’t going away any time soon, not least because MPs are expecting a change of policy on the tiered system later this month. But rebels aren’t just demanding a more localised approach to the tier system. They also want a change of tone from ministers.

There was fury in the party when the government used Public Health England analysis predicting 4,000 deaths a day by December to justify the second English lockdown. This model has become known among lockdown sceptics as the ‘dodgy dossier’ because of problems with the data used — yet it has still surfaced during presentations to backbenchers from officials. Some suspect a political push from health ministers to continue — as they see it — ‘scaring’ the public without cause.

Senior Conservatives feel this attitude is counter-productive and has led to rebellious sentiment on their benches unnecessarily. One tells me:

Instead of breaking down the tiered system into a more local basis, they put a lot of people in the position where they would have been barking mad to vote for it. This decision was down to the unnecessary clumsy intransigence of Hancock, Public Health England and the chief medical officer.

This ‘intransigence’ is a factor in calls from some MPs to move Hancock from his post, and from others for the Prime Minister to force a change of tone. In yesterday’s Observer, I reported that one key member of the Covid Recovery Group, Steve Baker, has called for Boris Johnson to rein in his ministers and encourage them to sound less gung-ho on restrictions than they currently do. Baker told me:

I am deeply alarmed that health ministers are so unabashed about the use of power to make deep incursions into our civil liberties. It’s perfectly possible to accept, as I do, that liberty must be curtailed to prevent harm to others but to simultaneously have a spirit of humility. I would hope Boris would re-establish in his ministers some Conservative caution about the dramatic use of state power.

One of the problems is that Tory MPs have started suspecting their colleagues in government of not feeling very conservative at the moment, while those colleagues in government are trying to insist that now isn’t the time for dogma. The greater the chasm between these two groups, the harder Johnson will find it to get anything past his party, whether on Covid or anything else.

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