Robert Peston

Covid is a nightmare for libertarian Tories

Covid is a nightmare for libertarian Tories
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These are confusing times for all of us. But for small-government libertarian Tories, Covid-19 is all their worst nightmares compressed into nine months.

It is hard to think of any basic civil liberty that hasn't been impinged in the cause of limiting the spread of coronavirus, except perhaps freedom of speech. As for Thatcherite constraints on the expansion of the state, we've not seen growth in public spending as fast or as large since 1945.

Nor have we witnessed such encroachment by government in markets and enterprises (from underwriting almost all employment, through to banning evictions and creating a whole new diagnostics and vaccinations infrastructure).

The vaccine, which has given most of the world such hope, is also something of a disaster for small-state libertarian ideologues. So much of the technology that underpins these vaccines stems from research paid for by governments and that could only have been funded by governments – because it is so inherently risky and therefore uncommercial.

Also, it was coherent – until we had the efficacy results of the BioNtech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AZN vaccines – to argue that civil liberties were being constrained too much and that the economic costs of social-distancing rules were excessive.

In a world before vaccines, there was a plausible view – if an unattractive one to many – that we were putting too high a value on an extra week or month or year of life. But how is it now justifiable to argue that there is no tragedy when an older or vulnerable person dies a few months prematurely because of Covid, when those lives can be prolonged by the vaccine if only the virus is held in check long enough?

And by the way, the kind of intra-regional tensions that have been unleashed, with the new breed of elected mayors giving voice to Midland and northern resentment of the concentration of power and money in London, is challenging the very integrity of England, within a fracturing United Kingdom.

In many ways therefore, the opposition from many Tory MPs to Boris Johnson's tiered restrictions – that have kept 99 per cent of England in semi-lockdown – feels like a performance of Stevie Smith's most famous poem. When I saw that the archetypal small state Tory, John Redwood, was this morning arguing that the only way to make the tiers work was for the government to spend more on supporting small businesses, all I could think of was Smith's ‘I was much further out than you thought, and not waving but drowning.’

A certain breed of Thatcherite Tory is gesticulating wildly, as the ideology invented by their heroine is torpedoed by Covid-19 and Boris Johnson.

PS. The government's ‘analysis of the health, economic and social effects of Covid-19 and the approach to tiering’ appears to be a largely pointless publication – because its 48 pages are based on its own stated assumption that ‘it is not possible to forecast with confidence the precise impact of a specific change to a specific restriction.’

In other words, no attempt has been made by Boris Johnson and the government to compare and contrast the impact of its tiers with alternative possible measures to control the virus.

And if the only available comparator is letting the virus spread like wildfire through the community, then obviously the tiers look preferable.

These are strange times, but if this placates a single Tory critic of the PM's tiers, I would be surprised.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston.

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