Sajid Javid found himself wading through treacle as he tried to make the case for the government’s ‘Plan B’ to MPs this afternoon. The impediments to his progress were constant interventions from all sides, including his own, questioning the wisdom of these measures, the data behind them and the principles at stake. The Health Secretary tried to be as mollifying as possible, taking the majority of these interventions, even when they were from an MP who had interrupted him before. His respectful manner did mean that colleagues weren’t visibly angry with Javid, but given their ire is largely directed at Boris Johnson, this tells us very little about the size of tonight’s looming rebellion.
It wasn’t just Javid who was making the case for the restrictions. In fact, he was ably assisted with this by his opponent, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. He gave a strong speech in favour of the measures which both helped and humiliated the government. Early on, he said:
‘No matter how dysfunctional the Conservative party has become, the country can rely on Labour. We will act in the national interest as we have done throughout the pandemic, putting public health before party politics by supporting the motions under consideration this afternoon.’
The Labour frontbencher repeatedly emphasised that his party wasn’t ‘playing games’ with these measures and that it was instead working with the government in the national interest. He also scolded those who had suggested vaccine passports were in some way comparable to the policies of Nazi Germany, which was a swipe at Tory backbencher Marcus Fysh. The whole tenor of his speech was that Labour was taking responsibility where the party of government had relinquished it.
This is where the danger of tonight’s win really lies. Relying on Labour votes isn’t just a bit annoying. It elevates the party to being a government in waiting, rather than just an opportunistic opposition. The rebel side are talking up the possibility that many of those who’ve said they don’t want to support the government will yet turn on that commitment. One source tells me: ‘It will be pitiful if people who publicly committed then renege.’
This is classic expectations management ahead of a vote. But it is also beside the point because the damage has largely already been done: the case has been made by the Conservative frontbench and the Labour Party, not the Conservative party as a whole and that shows the precariousness of Boris Johnson’s authority over his party.
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