Home science The Guardian view on Tory lockdown sceptics: a dangerous trend | Editorial

The Guardian view on Tory lockdown sceptics: a dangerous trend | Editorial


It is unusual for prime ministers to apologise for their policies the way Boris Johnson seeds his lockdown announcements with regret and reluctance. Some of that tone is understandable, but it too often shades into evasion of responsibility. He sounds unwilling to own the choices he has made.

The squeamishness is not surprising. Many of Mr Johnson’s instincts are libertarian. If he were not sponsoring the new English lockdown from Downing Street, he might have been among the 32 Tory backbench MPs who voted against it on Wednesday. Many more sympathise with the rebels.

The majority of public opinion is broadly behind the new regulations, but there is a current of fatigue and resentment, on a spectrum from reasonable doubt about the government’s methods to outright denial of scientific facts. With characteristic opportunism, Nigel Farage has moved to satisfy that market, rebranding his Brexit party as a movement for lockdown sceptics.

Mr Farage is adept at frightening the Conservative party into co-opting his agenda. Lockdown-scepticism might not have the same cultural resonance as suspicion of the EU, but it is taking hold as an ideological position in the Tory ranks.

Mr Johnson must beware. The rebellious spirit is hard to quell when it captures his party. The prime minister knows how ruinous that indiscipline can be, since he abetted it at the expense of his predecessor. Theresa May was hardly the first Conservative leader to be hobbled by disloyalty.

There are valid reasons to interrogate the detail of the new English lockdown, its draconian dimension, its economic impact, and the terms on which it might be eased next month. But that is a different challenge to the one raised by a small, disproportionately influential faction that seems determined to cast doubt on the need for any limit on social and commercial activity. Britain faces a difficult enough winter coping with a second wave of coronavirus cases without pandering to a lobby that too often denies the virulence of the virus.

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Success in controlling Covid-19 relies on public compliance and that is harder to achieve when prominent figures in the ruling party are seen to reject the regulations. Concern on that point motivated NHS leaders to write an open letter to all MPs, urging them to support the government. Wednesday’s toll of 492 newly registered deaths underlines that imperative.

Consensus was unlikely through the long duration of a pandemic, and it is right that a wide range of views is represented in parliament. But Mr Johnson’s difficulty in carrying his MPs with him into a second national lockdown does not bode well for his capacity to govern as the choices get ever more difficult and reserves of collective stamina are depleted. The prime minister is always quick to accuse Keir Starmer of failing to join him in a spirit of national unity. But Labour voted for the new regulations on Wednesday, not to bolster the prime minister, but because it is the right course of action. It is not a good sign that Mr Johnson failed to persuade a number of his MPs to agree. There is much precedent for Conservative leaders losing their authority that way, never to regain it, with damaging consequences for the country.



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