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A race against time


In our case, to get booster jabs before Omicron spirals out of control. And for Boris Johnson, to salvage what’s left of his premiership. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, if he can’t save himself we’re all in a spot of bother.

Down the pub there’s a sense of weary resignation about government moves to hold back the pandemic.

Judging by wholesale cancellations of Christmas bashes, gigs, theatre and footie, most people are if anything ahead of the the curve.

However, Conservative MP’s are not most people. And last week getting on for half of them voted against new rules already in force.

And the North Shropshire by-election result, aka kick in the goolies for the PM, will complicate any thoughts of any kind of Plan C.

Johnson’s always claimed to be guided by the science. But if the vicious variant does get out of hand the politics will matter to him just as much.

Worth pausing to reflect on the scale, and genesis, of his current predicament.

The thirty-four per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats in what’s always been a rock-solid Tory seat is the seventh biggest in history.

And it’s all Johnson’s fault. The vote only took place because he tried to shield old chum Owen Paterson from his rule-breaking second jobbery.

But for that, Paterson would have done his bird by now and be munching mince pies with his constituents.

As it is, top pollster Sir John Curtice puts the defeat at eight-point-five on the Richter scale.

Of course by-elections don’t tell you much about who’s going to win the next election. The Lib Dems aren’t really gearing for government.

But it’s a fascinating aside that true-blue Brexiteers from Shropshire have chosen for their MP a Remainer.

Maybe they’re bored with that subject. Or maybe, just maybe, local farmers are feeling buyers’ remorse, now that our changed status is starting to bite them.

Back at Westminster, meanwhile, Boris’s backbenchers are eyeing up the ever-lengthening charge sheet against him.

Let’s start with broken promises.

Levelling up? What’s that all about? Any ideas, anyone? The vaunted high speed train link was to be a clue. Except it’s been largely derailed.

We’ll keep taxes down? Hmmm. The National Insurance hike hitting the poorest hardest. Worse still, with inflation on the way up.

Add on all those no one-told-me parties last year that did/didn’t/might’ve taken place when no one else was allowed.

The Sir Humphrey figure charged with checking them out has had to give up on that, because it turns out his own people held one. Oops!

The so-called Barnard Castle incident, in which Bojo’s boy did what he chose, not what he was told, still resonates.

Likewise Number Ten staff laughing about the rules their own colleagues were breaking. Offended the British sense of fair play. Unsurprisingly.

Same applies to the hideously expensive makeover in Johnson’s Downing Street flat. All a bit slippy-slidey, the question of who stumped up for that.

Then there’s the coup de grace.

Listen guys, I’m a winner! Look at my majority at the last election! Yerright. Post Shropshire an awful lot of bets are off.

Especially as national polls are now giving Labour a healthy lead. Seems that Keir Whatsisname, the bloke with the furrowed forehead, ain’t so bad after all.

Which brings us on to the febrile mood on the Tory back benches.

A sidebar to the biggest rebellion of Johnson’s premiership, over Covid passports last week, is exactly who joined in.

Refuseniks included all the officers of the 1922 committee of Conservative MP’s.

They’re nicknamed ‘the men in grey suits’, because traditionally it falls to them to deliver two fatal words to PM’s who’ve fallen out of favour.

‘You’re fired.’

It’d need fifty-four Tory MP’s to drop them a get-’im-out line to trigger a leadership challenge, and the numbers are nowhere near that. Yet.

But it’s significant that after the vote one of these key people told Sky News a contest next year is now a runner.

It’s also widely reported that potential replacements, including Chancellor Rishi ‘Dishy’ Sunak, have already sorted their campaigns.

Et tu Brute …? Could just be.

As one Tory backbencher luridly put it: ‘They are all jockeying. They can smell the decay like blowflies on a rotting corpse.’

Of course the mindset of the current crop of Conservative MP’s is not Johnson’s fault. But it is his problem.

Though Margaret Thatcher was all for individual freedoms and whatnot, she did expect people to jolly well behave themselves.

But these days the party’s spawned uber-Maggieites on Columbian marching powder, if what some have been saying about Covid rules is anything to go by.

‘Full eastern bloc .. Pinged into the gulag .. This is not Nazi Germany .. Orwellian Ministry of Fear .. Stalinist minds.’

Steady on, chaps. With fears we could be looking at a million Omicron cases by the end of the month, boffins believe something really must be done.

Labour’s positioned itself as the voice of reason, getting tougher restrictions through in spite of Tory protests.

But Johnson’s increasingly hemmed in, given what he’s up against on his own side.

‘In office, but not in power.’ One-time Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont’s decades old indictment of his party’s efforts may be worth dusting off.

But, hell, let’s look on the bright side. For us at least, if not for them.

Ok, two jabs don’t cut it with Omicron, but three give pretty good protection. Hence the offer of boosters to all adults by the end of the month.

That target may be missed, but all the stops are being pulled out.

And, longer term, some scientists are echoing Churchill’s line about the tide turning. ‘Not the end etc etc .. but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.’

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, who hasn’t exactly been a bundle of laughs lately, is predicting gradual subsidence of intensity.

And Cambridge Uni virologist Dr Chris Smith shares the relatively optimistic view of retired geneticist Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, famed for decoding DNA.

Both cite reports that symptoms associated with the new variant are less severe. Possibly indicative, they argue, of the direction of travel.

‘Viruses are parasites,’ Smith points out.

‘Without us they have no home, so for an entity that exists solely to reproduce itself, excessive virulence can sometimes be a serious shot in the foot.’

He cites a global pandemic in the late nineteenth century, which killed more than a million people.

It spread like wildfire, but in time the survivors’ herd immunity kicked in and kicked back. They may have got it again, but nothing like as badly.

Analogous therefore, to the common cold. It’s pants, but we can live with it.

But if all this feels above your head, take heart.

A new study published by the British Medical Journal suggests aerospace engineers and brain surgeons aren’t necessarily brighter than the rest of us.

The researchers compared the cognitive abilities of a group of these guys with a sample of ordinary British folk, and found there wasn’t much difference.

So, they concluded, bang goes the expression ‘it’s not rocket science’. They added:

‘It’s a walk in the park or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate.’

Cheers for that. Gold star, anyone?


Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.



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