It’s getting to be a habit. Last week parliament was recalled to pass the EU trade agreement. This week it was recalled to allow the government’s third national lockdown to be retrospectively rubber-stamped. From this, you might imagine that the government either leaves important legislation until the last possible minute or doesn’t really have much of a clue what it will be doing from one day to the next. And you wouldn’t be wrong on either account.
A recall suggests high drama. The reality was the precise opposite. A general sense of existential ennui until the proceedings reached the conclusion that everyone knew was inevitable. But parliamentary formalities must be observed, so the day kicked off with Boris Johnson giving a statement in which he basically cut and pasted paragraphs of Monday night’s TV address along with a few from Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference.
The new coronavirus variant had forced his hand, he began. If rather later than many scientists had wanted, given he had known about the mutation for weeks. So he was planning on locking down the country until at least 22 February, even though the regulations gave him the leeway to keep the UK shut down until the end of March.
No one wanted to close schools, he continued, before insisting schools were still safe, even though he was closing them. This caused some puzzlement on both sets of benches. We were now in the realm of Schrödinger’s schools. Both safe and unsafe. Unless what he was trying to say was that the schools themselves were safe: it was just the pupils and the teachers in them who weren’t.
But not to worry, because this time round we had a way out of the pandemic, with 14m doses of the vaccine being administered to the most vulnerable individuals by the middle of February. He was rather short on detail on the logistics of this. But then, Johnson has often relied on a wing and a prayer.
In reply, Keir Starmer’s only regret was that the government hadn’t acted earlier, as he himself had suggested. The Captain Hindsight, as the prime minister used to call the Labour leader, has morphed into Captain Foresight. But to be fair, most of the country has been consistently ahead of the government on when further restrictions are needed. Keir breezed through a shortlist of the government’s failures over that past 10 months but even he sounded as if he was on autopilot, with the expression of someone who knew he was basically talking to himself.
MPs had been advised to stay away from parliament – for their own sanity as much as their health – and to contribute remotely, but only Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems appeared to have taken the guidance seriously. While the opposition benches were near enough empty, the Tory benches were almost full with MPs who had made a special effort to travel into Westminster to say just how dangerous such travel had become and, though they regretted the measures and would like regular votes between now and March on keeping the restrictions in place, they accepted the need for them at present.
The one lone dissenter was Desmond Swayne, who described the loss of liberty as “pettifogging malice” – someone needs to let him know the daily Covid death total had just passed 1,000 for the first time since April – but Boris dealt with him easily enough. In fact, by the end Johnson was looking quite chipper. So much so, that he began to overpromise yet again, virtually assuring the house that schools would reopen and life would be more normal next month. After a few days under the cosh, Boris the crowdpleaser was back. Even if it was in reduced circumstances.
Still, that statement proved to be the day’s highpoint compared with what followed – a statement from the hapless education secretary, Gavin Williamson, on why there was no inconsistency between him saying last week that exams were still on and schools would remain open and this week announcing the opposite.
It was all a far cry from those heady days of 2006 when he won fireplace salesman of the year at the St Albans Travelodge. Back then he had been a somebody. A man going places. Now he’s just a third-rate politician, in a job from which he can’t be sacked because he’s fucked it up so badly that his successor would inevitably also have to resign from the fallout of Gav’s incompetence. So he can do nothing but muddle on, each day making a bad situation worse. His tragedy is that, deep down, he knows he’s useless. His confidence is shot, his self-worth at rock bottom. Only the last vestiges of ego remain. He’s condemned to being the worst education secretary of all time but is powerless to do anything about it.
Even the most loyal and unctuous Tory MPs have had it with Williamson. One by one they pointedly failed to congratulate him on a job well done and pointed out his failings, over exams, laptops, everything really. He used to be the cabinet’s Private Pike but that has long since become a gross insult to the Dad’s Army character.
“I never wanted to be in this position,” he sobbed. And for the first time, he had most of the country on his side. Because there is no one who values education who wishes he was in his current position either. His only value – apart from satisfying Johnson’s bullying tendencies – is to make the other cabinet deadbeats look not quite so bad. It’s life, Gav, but not as we know it.