Although the decisive Conservative victory in the 2019 general election brought down the curtain on an extremely weird period in British politics, the habits many of the participants picked up during the preceding years have taken a while to un-learn.
The House of Commons has returned to being, if not boring, then at least not quite the dramatic stage that it was when Theresa May, and latterly Boris Johnson, were trying to get Brexit enacted. A substantial government majority means, all things being equal, a quieter life. Both the Opposition and recalcitrant backbenchers shrink back towards their normal standing.
Steve Baker’s abortive attempt to threaten the Prime Minister on Thursday – which lasted around two hours – suggests that in some quarters this lesson is still being learned.
We have no way of knowing exactly went on behind the scenes. We do know that Baker can be one of Westminster’s most adept guerrilla commanders, as his leadership of the European Research Group in the run-up to the referendum makes clear enough.
But even skilled leadership needs a critical mass of political weight behind it and the cause of lockdown scepticism evidently lacks such support. Tory MPs, although concerned about the economy, are not rebelling in anything like the numbers required to threaten the Government’s position. And in the country, opposition to lockdown is a marginal pursuit.
This has clearly come as a bit of a culture shock for some of the more libertarian Brexiteers. The pandemic has only highlighted what was already evident before, namely that modern Britain is quite at home with things like CCTV and ID cards. Indeed, given that it took only a few days of rioting for one in three Brits to tell pollsters they’d back using live ammunition against rioters (the only ‘militaristic’ policing tactic not to poll majority support), it should be entirely unsurprising that a pandemic which has killed tens of thousands of people in this country alone made the public an easy sell on what passes for an authoritarian response here.
Why is this? One may choose from a veritable buffet of competing explanations. Maybe it’s that the British right lacks the revolutionary anti-government origin of its American counterpart, despite valiant efforts to kitbash one out of Magna Carta and the Regicide. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s appeal in a recent speech to “freedom of speech, rights of property, the rule of law and democracy” seem closer to its proper spirit, but it definitely lacks the don’t-tread-on-me twang of Baker’s invocation of ‘liberty’.
Or perhaps the explanation is social: that the advent of an equal franchise as diluted the political power of men, who are less inclined to take precautions. Or that British society lacks the high levels of social trust that made the Swedish approach, whatever its merits, possible to attempt. Whatever the truth, the reality is that libertarianism is a minority pursuit.
This does not mean that Baker et al should stop trying to hold the Government to account. Even those who support aggressive measures to combat the virus ought to be thankful that such measures are zealously scrutinised. But it cannot be done the way Brexit was done. They are not, on this, the tip of a spear.