Big Brother Watch describes the Government’s emergency powers, introduced in response to the Coronavirus. as “the greatest loss of liberty in our country’s history” and suggested that Ministers were ushering in “an authoritarian surveillance state”. Whether or not you agree, or believe if you do that these powers are justified, the sweep and scope of them is daunting.
They allow judicial commissioners, entitled to issue warrants, to be appointed temporarily; make it harder for landlords to evict tenants; make it easier to detain people with mental health problems; allow Ministers to close premises and, in shutting schools, to “make more specific directions… about particular people”.
And so on. The Government claims that these measures are carefully balanced: for example, the power to detain people who may be infected requires “reasonable grounds”. Civil libertarians will counter that they have been used to launch 89 unlawful prosecutions. There are big questions about the retention and security of data.
Enter Graham Brady. The powers are to be reviewed in the Commons next week. The 1922 Committee Chairman wants Parliament to vote on any new restrictions. “There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes,” he has said.
What happens next? Prepare for a tussle. Ministers will argue that would be impractical for MPs to consider every new regulation, and that Parliament won’t always be sitting. What would happen between a Thursday and a Monday, if the Commons isn’t sitting on the Friday, were there to be a public emergency? Or during recess?
But what will count most is less procedural abstractions than Parliamentary realities. If the Government thinks that it would lose a vote on Brady’s amendment, assuming that this is in order, it will surely fold – and we will be told that all these insuperable difficulties about practicalities and timing can be resolved, after all.
Much will depend on what Keir Starmer decides to do. There are no prizes for guessing what will motivate him. Were Labour driven by his civil libertarian instincts, or the desire to hold Ministers more frequently to account, it would be introducing the Brady proposal itself.
But the Labour leader is motivated by neither, nor even by the wish to inflict short-term damage on the Government. He is in the long-term business, as far as Covid-19 is concerned, of watching and waiting – building a longer-term case against Boris Johnson, like the prosecutor he is.
Above all, he understands that voters dislike opposition for the sake of it. Hence Labour’s passivity, towards the measures and more widely. So he and his front bench will play this one by ear. They may band together with Brady to defeat the Government, if it doesn’t get its concession in first.
Or they may sit back, and do nothing that might deter Conservative MPs from having a first-class row on the floor of the Commons. There will certainly be one if a deal is not struck. This brings us to the second prong of the fork that Brady is fashioning.
If the first is about constitutional propriety, the second is about Coronavirus politics, and the Government’s plan as a whole. Most Tory MPs have not been worrying away for six months about civil liberties, for better or worse. But many have become concerned by the strategy’s aim or handling or both.
They were mostly onside for the original lockdown, and stayed so during its loosening – though there has been growing debate about the speed at which this should take place, reflecting the institutional differences between the Treasury (faster) and the Department of Health (slower).
Some think that the Government has handled the virus as well as is humanly possible, and will hate its opposition, Remainer and media critics. Their primary impulse will be a loathing of all those who are putting in danger, as they see it, the retention of their seats at the next election.
Others, while having no time for those critics either, stand back from the fray and take a more dispassionate view. They concede that Ministerial and administrative blunders also damage electoral prospects. And acknowledge that the Government’s record of dealing with the virus is mixed.
But what should worry Johnson is that some Conservative MPs have moved on from debating the speed of lifting lockdowns to believing that these should no longer happen at all, or at least very rarely. Our sense is that there is growing support on the backbenches and among Ministers for a Sweden-type approach.
It would be surprising were this not so, given the Government’s reverses of the last six months or so, voter restiveness, the uncertainties of the future, Parliament’s abnormal workings and the relentless drumbeat from the Tory press, now rising in volume, for an approach that relies less on compulsion and more on voluntarism.
We will consider the pluses and minuses of such an approach later this week: for the record, we favour a loosening of restrictions – a rebalancing both of lives and livelihoods and of lives and lives (since there’s a trade-off between seeking to lower Covid-19 deaths and lower those from, say, cancer) – backed up by a testing system that works.
For this morning, we want to concentrate on the significance of Brady’s move. It marks the first time since the emergency measures were introduced that Conservative MPs are being offered a substantial Parliamentary opportunity to help shape the Government’s strategy.
The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.
Brady himself, as Chairman of the 1922 Executive Committee, couldn’t be more senior. Some think that the holder of that office should be a lower key operator. But he has always been prepared to speak and vote against the whip if he thinks it necessary – on high speed rail, tobacco, elected Mayors and (of course) Europe.
Be in no doubt, as the Government’s scientific advisers press for more restrictions, that backbench restiveness is growing. We don’t know by how much. Some Tory MPs will share voters’ enthusiasm for shutdowns, at least when polled, and believe that the electorate would recoil at an approach that tolerates higher deaths.
Perhaps we will find out more next week. But while the politics is complex, the principles are simple. The wearing of masks in shops, local lockdowns, the rule of six, changes to the Coronavirus Act’s panoply of powers – ultimately, MPs must be able to decide all these, and that means more debates and votes.
During the last Parliament, the legislature tried to act, via a biased Speaker, as the executive. Now, there is a danger of the pendulum swinging too far the other way – and of Ministers yielding, less through desire than by convenience, to arbitrary impulse. We need the middle course: good Parliamentary government. That’s the point of taking back control.