MPs fail to live up to hype as debate on Omicron measures underwhelms

Maybe it was because none of the votes were really ever in doubt. Or maybe it was because the lockdown sceptics’ real beef has never been with the health secretary. It’s been with the prime minister whom they blame for making up Covid policy on the hoof to distract from his parties at No 10 and other indiscretions. If he can break the rules, then so can they. Either way, the debate to approve the government’s new statutory instruments on face masks, Covid passes and mandatory vaccinations for health and care workers rarely matched the hype.

It had been billed as a showdown between libertarian Tory backbenchers and a prime minister they regarded as increasingly statist and authoritarian. Not to mention unstable and a liability. But when push came to shove it was all rather amiable. Underwhelming even. A few MPs kicked off but as much for show as anything else. Gesture politics at its most gentle. It was almost as though everyone was too tired to be bothered. As if no one was quite sure how spooked they should be by the Omicron variant and was just looking forward to some time off over Christmas to take stock.

Sajid Javid looked and sounded knackered from the moment he opened the debate. He’s been under the cosh for much of the past week as he has tried and failed to get a grip on Omicron and the last thing he needed was a speech that, including interventions, lasted for the best part of an hour. His voice was flat and disengaged as he highlighted the threat Omicron presented, before making only a very perfunctory, semi-detached case for why the government was making only the mildest changes to Covid restrictions.

The interventions came thick and fast, and Javid didn’t have the strength or will to resist. Tory Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group and one of the government’s leading critics on coronavirus, wanted assurances that parliament would have a chance to vote on any further restrictions the government might impose over recess. The Saj looked terrified as if he hadn’t a clue how to answer. So he mumbled something non-committal.

That was just the start. Caroline Lucas highlighted the absurdity of talking about a tsunami of infections while encouraging everyone to go out on the lash for Christmas parties to infect their mates. Conservative Andrew Bridgen predictably highlighted his own absurdity by saying that trying to suppress the Omnicron (sic) variant was dangerous because it could then mutate into something far more serious. The best thing was to let it rip through the country. Overnight, Andy has apparently qualified as a leading expert on coronavirus and knows more than every other epidemiologist in the UK.

Chris Grayling tried and failed to sound intelligent, as did Bob Seely, who has decided that because all other forecasts have been inaccurate it necessarily followed that the scientists were also wrong this time. Steve Baker wondered why the government was only bringing in such pathetically minor restrictions if the situation was as bad as Javid said. Boneheaded Steve has yet to understand that the new rules are all about what Boris can hope to slide past his backbenchers with a manageable rebellion, rather than what might actually be effective.

It was left to the far more persuasive Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, to make the government’s case that the Saj had failed to do. He pointed out that the Saj wasn’t a Nazi, as the idiotic Marcus Fysh had suggested the day before, that wearing a mask in shops and on public transport wasn’t so bad, that a Covid pass wasn’t the same as a vaccine passport – a distinction that seemed to elude some Tories – and that asking health workers to be vaccinated by 1 April wasn’t a huge imposition given that they all needed to be jabbed for hepatitis C anyway. Labour was the patriotic party, Streeting said, echoing Keir Starmer’s TV address the night before, and would be voting with the government on all measures because it was what the NHS and other health organisations were recommending.

Well, not quite all Labour MPs would be walking through the Aye lobby on all votes. Rachael Maskell and Paula Barker both said they couldn’t vote for mandatory vaccinations, while Graham Stringer insisted he wouldn’t be voting with the government until it was more transparent with the data. He’s going to be waiting for a long time. So it was left to the Tories to express what passed for dissent.

While presenting himself as the voice of moderation as he explained why he would be voting against the government on some measures, Steve Brine complained that Boris Johnson had terrified children, who couldn’t sleep after his Sunday night TV appearance. Then given the shambolic state of Johnson, who is visibly falling more and more apart by the day, it would probably be best if he made every announcement by radio from now on. Or at the very least he could wear a paper bag over his head. That way he could spare the entire country from the horror. Not just the kiddies.

The most eccentric performance came from Desmond Swayne, who has taken up residency as the Commons’ pantomime dame. Appearing in Eastbourne all week. Rather than just accepting, as even the hardcore Spartans do in their saner moments, that all the new measures were really not a lot to get angry about, Swayne began waving his arms theatrically. We didn’t care about people dying of flu, so why get so concerned about Covid? Besides which, more people died on the roads than died of Covid. This was palpably false but nobody bothered to correct him. These days everyone thinks it best to switch off until Swayne eventually runs out of batteries and grinds to a halt.

Mark Harper was convinced that the new measures were just a cunning plan to lure MPs into a false sense of security so that it could sneak in a punitive plan C in while no one was noticing; Bridgen couldn’t believe that so many people had been duped by the NHS. But mostly the rebels were running on fumes, struggling to convince themselves that proportionate and uncontroversial changes were a major assault on civil liberties.

Even so, rather more of them perked up when it came to the votes. The measures themselves might have been much ado about nothing, but the divisions were another matter. A chance to let their leader know that they were as sick of his lying and preening narcissism as the rest of the country. That they had had enough and something had to give. Ninety-nine Tories rebelled on Covid passes. Far more than anticipated. It would be enough to give Johnson a few more sleepless nights. If he weren’t already having them with the arrival of a baby daughter.

A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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