Patrick O'Flynn

Boris cannot ask us to sacrifice more freedoms

Boris cannot ask us to sacrifice more freedoms
Adrian Dennis-WPA Pool/Getty Images
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If Boris Johnson is brought down by his team’s lax attitude to the Covid restrictions they imposed on everyone else then Keir Starmer will be fully entitled to claim a share of the spoils.

For yesterday Starmer, or more likely a scriptwriter with real political nous, delivered an understated killer of a line at PMQs. It was the kind of line that gets people thinking and gains weight as the hours pass. The Labour leader reminded Boris Johnson: 

Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man whom she had been married to for 73 years. Leadership, sacrifice – that is what gives leaders the moral authority to lead. Does the Prime Minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?

The first thing to say here is bravo to whichever adviser told Starmer that for a Labour leader to pick fights with the Queen – as he did over the absurd Meghan and Harry self-pity episode – is about the stupidest thing he can do. Associating his rum and rough party with Her Majesty is, by contrast, a much better idea.

Queen Elizabeth II at the funeral service for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Getty Images)

Conjuring up that heart-breaking image of the Queen alone and grieving, unable to be comforted because she was determined to observe the Covid rules imposed on her subjects impeccably, was a quietly devastating move amid a rumpus about the excesses and arrogance of Johnson’s own entourage.

And the ensuing question was exactly the right one. Does this man, Boris Johnson, have the moral authority to lead the nation at a time like this?

At the exact point Starmer asked the question, the answer might have been 'yes, just about' because Britain was then still on the road out of Covid restrictions and the public were not being instructed to surrender further freedoms for the collective good.

But a few hours later all that changed when Johnson brought in his 'Plan B' and even called for 'a conversation' about mandatory vaccination. Such roundhead restrictions cannot be imposed on the public by such a cavalier – someone so careless about whether he or his inner-circle follow the rules they set for others.

For a start, if such restrictions are indeed necessary and wise then the level of observance of them that ensues must be crucial. And quite obviously that level will be much lower from now on if it is Johnson making the demands after the multiple infringements of and bending of lockdown rules by him and his circle.

Someone more consistent and disciplined, such as the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, could clearly be expected to fare much better on that score.

This PM’s habit of being softer on himself and his associates than on the rest of us – manifested in his reluctance to dismiss Matt Hancock, readiness to exempt himself from pinging rules, attempt to get Owen Paterson off the hook of a damning standards committee report and multiple other acts of exaggerated entitlement – disqualify him from leading the country into any new era of miserably reduced personal liberties.

If the threat posed by new Covid variants is going to make governments suspending core liberties from time to time the 'new normal' then it is time for Mr Johnson to pick up a P45 from the fellow next door and start working on his Shakespeare book and devoting more time to his young family.

This thought is clearly spreading like wildfire among Tory MPs who will rebel in huge numbers when new restrictions are voted on in the Commons. Former minister Mark Harper spoke for many when he observed: 'From the Paterson case to the Christmas parties… the credibility of those at the very top has been seriously damaged. Why should people listen to the Prime Minister’s instructions to follow the rules when people inside Number 10 Downing Street don’t do so? No to Plan B.'

For now, cabinet discipline is just about intact. But how long will it be before someone spots a first-mover advantage in becoming known as the leading anti-lockdowner at the Tory top table? Not long at all, is my bet.

Politics is a rough old trade in which leaders frequently lay down their friends for their lives, to use Jeremy Thorpe’s old joke about Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives. Allegra Stratton was yesterday’s human sacrifice.

Unless he very swiftly returns to the pathway out of emergency measures and back towards freedom – what Theresa May termed 'learning to live with Covid' in the Commons on Monday – then Johnson himself will be the next. Like Piggy, the overweight, intellectual and talkative boy in Lord of the Flies, he may well find a huge boulder rolling down the mountainside in his direction.