The New Regime

YouTube comment three days ago: “For once, I know exactly how this ended up in the suggested list.”

Hello, good evening and remain indoors. Today I expected to be closing out the second trilogy of Parliamentary Studies lectures with Simon Burton. That lecture has been cancelled, as has everything else.

Four days into the university’s shutdown, the situation is getting bleak. On Tuesday and Wednesday there was still a smattering of traffic on campus but today nearly all the buildings are locked and barely a soul can be seen. Today the vast majority of British children are going home sine die and now many other types of establishments – pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on – are being advised to close too.

Providing the image for this article, COVID-19 announcements have replaced Brexit votes as the nation’s top daily political fix. I mentioned on Tuesday that the pandemic has destroyed what looked like a return to political stability, but the irony extends far beyond.

For much of 2019 the foremost fear was of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal. Many on the remain side made catastrophic forecasts of borders being locked down, supply lines failing, the pound collapsing, businesses closing down and the imposition of martial law. Many leavers, by contrast, seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the prospect, talking excitedly of a reenactment of the Second World War… or at least the version they had seen in films. This year those anxieties and delights have been transposed to the coronavirus, though the political demographics of the two camps are not necessarily the same. Three months ago the emergence of a large Conservative majority caused many to predict that Boris Johnson would become an authoritarian dictator. In the last few weeks he has been criticised for not being authoritarian enough.

Rishi Sunak became an MP less than five years ago and was still unknown to most of the public until mid-February. Chris Whitty did not have a Wikipedia page until 7th July last year. So far it has been edited 154 times, of which 120 were since 1st March. Even I would not have remembered his name unprompted, though I now realise I’ve watched him several times presenting Gresham lectures. Sir Patrick Vallance does a little better, having a page since 2017, though the edit spike is similar.

Parliament has been looking emaciated this week, with both chambers showing a lot of empty space. Prime Minister’s Questions, normally a heated and passionate cacophony of noise in a room overflowing with attendees, became a subdued and timid affair as many honourable members decided to stay away. Later that afternoon the upper house adjourned during pleasure for ten minutes so that noble Lords who had come for oral questions could clear the chamber before the arrival of those who came to debate the budget, thus keeping the benches well below capacity and allowing peers to maintain social distance. Yesterday the Lord Speaker himself announced that he would be going into isolation. He intends to continue the majority of his duties remotely, though the task of presiding on the woolsack must of course be left to his deputies.


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