For rule of six read rule of 50. It is hard to believe that the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, will appease Boris Johnson and refuse this week’s amendment to the Covid lockdown bill from the Tory backbench leader Graham Brady. Brady wants parliament to be free to monitor Johnson’s six-month emergency pandemic bill of unprecedented curbs on personal liberty. He claims to have 50 Tory MPs behind him, enough to get his way. Britain cannot allow its ruler dictatorial powers for a full half year.
It might be otherwise. Were Britain’s test-and-trace regime remotely operational, were its Covid “case rate” better than near random (as it is related only to testing), had the government communicated convincing evidence for social distancing, and were sufficient economic counter-measures in place, public confidence might be greater. None of this applies. Rumours that Johnson’s science advisory group, Sage, wants a two-week lockdown as a “circuit breaker” have been the last straw. On whose say-so, on what evidence, with what degree of criminal enforcement? Johnson says he could bring in the army, Trump-style.
This week has seen the astonishing sight of students in Manchester and Scotland having been first allowed back to college and then at once incarcerated for some of them predictably testing positive. This has led to medieval scenes of the imprisoned having to be fed by their families through the bars. There is no information that any of these students are actually ill. Meanwhile, parliament’s bars have been freed from the 10pm curfew. Discipline is in chaos.
This is Johnson’s individual doing. He is not a party man. His support within the Tory hierarchy is based purely on his 2019 success in securing a Commons majority of 80. But these are not normal times. Johnson’s rating is falling. One poll at the weekend showed his popularity and that of his party falling for the first time behind Labour and its leader Keir Starmer. Johnson’s Commons base was built on Brexit-voting seats, while his popular vote showed barely any advance on Theresa May’s in 2017 – 13.9m against her 13.6m. This man is not secure.
Finding a focus of power in Britain at present is hard. There are rumours of rifts between Johnson’s secretive government scientists and his popular chancellor Rishi Sunak. His powerful aide, Dominic Cummings, is toxic to both the cabinet and parliament. As happened under May, a leadership vacuum in Downing Street sees power inevitably drift towards the Commons. Brady’s amendment is hardly outrageous. It offers reassurance to the nation and thus a safety valve to Johnson. It would give parliament some steerage over a government that is now all at sea. It would give Johnson some space to breathe. He needs it.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist