A little of what had been said had sunk in, after all. Temporarily at least. There had been a suspicion that the many fine words that had been spoken in tribute to David Amess on Monday might have been quickly forgotten by the time prime minister’s questions came round. But Keir Starmer was keen to keep the mood music playing and opened by reminding Boris Johnson of the commitment MPs from both sides of the Commons to a kinder and more gentle form of politics.
“I am going to be collegiate,” the leader of the opposition said. A look of panic crossed Boris’s eyes. He thrives on division and point scoring, not consensus. Starmer went on to address the online safety bill. There were still many social media platforms on which violent and extremist content was posted: could the government commit to giving the bill its second reading by the end of the year? If so, it would have Labour’s backing. Boris tried to think of a reason why not, but quickly realised he was cornered and promised to give the bill a pre-Christmas nudge.
Starmer doubled down on the collegiality. As it was clear that Johnson didn’t really have much of a clue of what was actually in the bill – unsurprising, not just because Boris doesn’t do detail but also as the government has spent years trying both to make it so complex as to be practically anodyne and to shunt it into the long grass – the Labour leader went for an easy win.
How about criminal sanctions for the bosses who allowed illegal, terrorist content on their social media sites? Absolutely, Boris replied. Why ever not? Some of his colleagues on the frontbench groaned. They had spent ages trying to distance directors of social media companies from any legal responsibility. Boris had just undermined years of hard work. Why couldn’t he have done what they always did when they didn’t know what they were talking about? Waffle and commit to nothing?
Boris was now reaching his breaking point and started to treat collegiality as a competition. “I want to be collegiate too,” he said desperately. But he didn’t. He can’t stand the idea that someone might know better or disagree with him and just wanted to point-score and inject his trademark mindless Bertie Booster optimism into proceedings. To make it sound as if he was getting the best of an argument everyone could see he had lost. It was a desperate misreading of the mood of the house as he merely further exposed his inability to see anything as other than a game to be played out for his personal advancement.
With infections now running at nearly 50,000 a day and deaths and hospitalisations also on the rise, you’d have thought that at least one MP might have wanted to ask what the government planned to do about the worsening Covid situation. But apparently not. Indeed, almost no Conservative MP is concerned enough about the virus to be bothered to wear a face covering in public – despite the many signs around Westminster asking them to do so. So it was left to the health secretary to enlighten the country on the government’s near total absence of thought about the pandemic at the first Downing Street press conference in months.
The stream of unconsciousness was essentially this: steady as she goes. Even if the number of infections were to double to 100,000 per day, then the best thing for everyone to do was nothing. Plan A clearly wasn’t working, but it wasn’t the moment to panic and implement Plan B. Rather it was time for Plan A–. This consisted of trying to get everyone who had ignored Plan A to give it another go. Those who were eligible for vaccinations and booster jabs and had not yet heard about them should be encouraged to do so by MPs who were also ignoring public health guidelines. The one extra he had to offer was some new drugs that might be available next year. Which would obviously be a big help in the coming months. Enjoying Christmas was the main thing, Sajid Javid said. Unless you happen to have died.
What wasn’t required was Plan B. Primarily because that might upset some old-school Tories who regarded any public health measures as a breach of civil liberties. But personally speaking, the health secretary was easy either way. He was very happy for people not to wear masks as per Plan A, but he was also very happy for everyone to voluntarily move to Plan B and wear masks. Schrodinger’s Saj. But it would be awfully inconvenient for the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to have to reorganise his Xmas party after telling everyone he had only just arranged it during that morning’s media round.
Understandably, most members of the media were interested to know whether Javid was plain stupid or clinically insane. Surely the one lesson from last year was that it was better not to act too late? Sajid went on to prove you could be both dim and mad. The NHS Confederation didn’t know what it was talking about, he said. It was important for the NHS to be stress-tested. There was no real concern over the UK having infection rates that were spiralling out of control: the main thing was for people with cancer and heart conditions not to take up up too many hospital resources. So if they could go away and die quietly, they would be doing everyone with Covid a favour.
“We have a huge amount to be proud of,” Javid said, seemingly unaware that he was now hellbent on undoing most of the achievements to date. “But we must not be complacent.”
Only every one of his sentences was laced with complacency. He couldn’t even say when he might consider moving to Plan B. Probably by the time the doctors are recommending Plan D.
Here was the real message. The government had decided that an NHS at breaking point and hundreds of deaths per day were a price worth paying to keep the economy open. Survival of the fittest and all that. So long, suckers.