Conservative MPs Radicalised by COVID Are Coming for Boris Johnson
COVID-19 almost killed the Prime Minister – and now it is killing his leadership of the Conservative Party, says Adam Bienkov
Boris Johnson’s Government is set to suffer its worst ever rebellion on Tuesday, as Conservative MPs vote against his plans to tackle the Omicron variant.
The measures, which will pass thanks to support from opposition parties, are likely to have only a limited impact on the spread of the latest strain of the Coronavirus.
Forcing people to wear masks in theatres and prove their vaccine status before attending gigs are unlikely to do much to stop what Johnson told his Cabinet on Tuesday will be a “huge spike” of Omicron infections hitting the UK.
Even within parts of his own Government, there is a growing acceptance that much tougher measures are required. Some of these, such as limiting social contact, are set to be unveiled in Scotland by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon later today.
Just as with previous waves of the virus, the Prime Minister appears either unwilling or unable to take the steps that other governments already accept are required. As his former chief aide Dominic Cummings revealed earlier this year, Johnson has long been reluctant to deal with the threat from COVID-19.
At the start of the crisis, Johnson initially dismissed it as a hoax and missed key meetings in order to work on his book about Shakespeare. Even after he nearly died from the virus himself, he continued to block timely action – famously saying that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than put England back into lockdown.
Yet, rather than stick to this instinct, Johnson has at every turn rolled over and belatedly taken tough action – but only when it is too late to actually prevent disaster. He is still making this same mistake some 21 months after the crisis began.
On Sunday evening, he pledged that every adult would be able to receive a booster jab before the end of the December, without first making sure that the NHS would be capable of fulfilling this. With the health service’s Coronavirus booster booking system falling over due to the surge in demand, and the public unable to order lateral flow tests, it quickly became clear that the Prime Minister was writing cheques he simply couldn’t cash.
Later on Monday, the Health and Social Care Secretary was forced to admit that, while “we can try to offer adults a chance to get boosted by the end of this month… that does not mean every single person can get that booster”.
So, rather than take the early action needed to get Britain ready for potential new variants, Johnson has instead waited until it was too late to prevent yet another wave of infections.
As one of the Prime Minister’s own advisors Professor Susan Michie told Byline Times, by delaying action until it is too late Johnson has once again made “the biggest mistake you can make in a pandemic”.
It is easy to write this all up to incompetence – but there are other forces at play. Most importantly, there is the transformation of Johnson’s Conservatives into an avowedly anti-lockdown party.
The foundation of the ‘COVID Recovery Group’ of MPs by former Conservative ministers Mark Harper and Steve Baker has driven what is now the biggest crisis facing Johnson’s leadership so far.
Many of the MPs within this group are among those who most vehemently backed Boris Johnson’s candidacy for the Conservative leadership, believing that his support for Brexit was a sign of a broader low-tax and libertarian agenda. In reality, Johnson has no such agenda. Although notoriously tight with his own money, he will spend whatever it takes to advance his own pet causes or secure his own survival.
The arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, which forced the shutdown of large parts of the UK economy, would have forced any government to spend huge amounts of money. But, while previous Conservative governments may have chosen to compensate for that with spending cuts, Conservative MPs now believe that Johnson’s instincts are to keep public spending and taxes at historic highs in perpetuity.
With the COVID Recovery Group’s Steve Baker warning darkly that the Prime Minister is “once again choosing that downward path towards, frankly, hell” by pursuing new Coronavirus restrictions, it is clear that a new radicalised core of Conservative MPs has now emerged which pose an existential threat to Johnson’s premiership.
The alignment between Conservative Brexiters and Conservative lockdown sceptics is clear to see.
Johnson became Prime Minister thanks to a large group of radical pro-Brexit MPs and party members. Now, with the politics of Brexit increasingly slipping to the margins in Westminster, many Conservative Brexiters have switched to the politics of COVID instead.
If, as looks likely, Johnson is forced to belatedly impose tougher measures to tackle Omicron, then these same MPs could soon decide that it is time to bring down his premiership.
After just two years in the job, the very same people who made Boris Johnson Prime Minister may very quickly decide to unmake him.
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