EU Referendum

Politics: the march of the Omicrons


I did check yesterday to see whether there were any of them Omicrons hiding in the bushes, but there was only next door's cat peering through the fence, wondering whether to chance the brick I was about to throw at him. In the event, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and buggered off. And I still haven't spotted any Omicrons.

A lot of Tory MPs also seemed unconvinced about the great Omicron invasion, rumoured to be about 60 or 70 until Johnson met them in the Commons to reassure them that he was only doing his best for Queen and Country.

According to The Times, the prime minister mounted a last-ditch charm offensive as he told Tory MPs that he had "absolutely no choice" but to introduce his measures. He told the 1922 committee that only a small proportion of those infected by Omicrons would need to go to hospital before it became a "real problem".

Health secretary Sajid Javid then told MPs to "think of the chillun", stressing that if they didn't deal with the "grave threat", the Omicrons could "overwhelm the NHS" and child victims of car crashes would be left untreated.

Earlier, a gruesome warning had been delivered by the government's "top public health adviser", Dr Susan Hopkins, to the effect that the Omicrons had been doubling every two to three days in the UK but the pace appeared to have speeded up.

Now, she is saying, they could have infecting a million people a day by the end of December. And, by that reckoning, a week later the entire population of the UK will be infected every day.

However, the net result of all this endeavour was to have the number of rebels soar to one short of a hundred, or slightly less, depending on which paper you read. The parliament's website lists 98 Tory MPs as voting against Covid passports, but rebels claimed there were two others who forgot to scan their pass to register their vote, which would take the total to 100.

These are the people who would rule the country - when they can't even check-in with their own ID cards. You can see why they are opposed to passports. Many of them might forget to bring them.

With or without the forgetees, though, the refusniks amount to close on half of all backbenchers - the rump that excludes the so-called payroll vote, amounting to about 214 MPs.

Under the headline, "Tory Covid rebels deal hammer blow to Boris Johnson's authority", the Telegraph has joyfully describes the events in the Commons, characterising them as "the worst Parliamentary rebellion" of Johnson's premiership. It dwarfs last December's record, when 55 Tory MPs opposed a new tiered lockdown system.

As Starmer's Labour Party, with a few exceptions, had already decided to back the government, there was no chance of the measures being rejected. It may well be, therefore, that Starmer gave the Tory backbenchers a free hit, allowing them to vote against their leader without having to take responsibility for dumping the new controls, which they can now blame on the opposition.

One now wonders whether this will have any impact on tomorrow's by-election. Electoral folklore has it that voters tend to dislike divided parties so, in theory, last night's result should work against the Tories - assuming the news reaches North Shropshire in time to influence the vote.

Should the result go against Johnson, all that will save him is to have the Omicron's rally and strike down the zillions of innocents awaiting their booster jabs, stuffing NHS hospitals with the dead and dying, with the bodies spilling into the streets as the morgues fail to cope with the extra trade.

Then, at least, The Great Leader will be able to mount another prime-time television appearance - perhaps replacing the Queen's message on Christmas day.

After artfully mussing up his hair once more, he will be able to declare "I told you so", as Comrade Whitty reels of the latest batch of statistics and implores the diminishing band of the living to attend one of the remaining vaccination centres for their self-administered boosters - the resident vaccinators having long departed the scene.

On the other hand, if the Omicrons refuse to cooperate, and insist on making people only a few people mildly ill, Johnson may be facing a nightmare scenario. Already, there are suggestions that the illness "may be no worse than flu", while the first real-world study "finds that excess natural deaths are significantly lower than in previous waves".

Having pressed the panic button, Johnson may thus have to explain why he has committed billions of taxpayer pounds to a vastly expanded vaccination programme, when most of the population remains robustly healthy - apart from the thousands dying from undiagnosed cancers and other ailments - despite not having had their jabs.

It is at that point that even Tory MPs may decide they have had enough of The Great Leader. Already there are rumblings, with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee, saying that, after yesterday's vote, a leadership challenge in the new year was now possible. "I think that's got to be on the cards. He's got to realise that he's got to change", Sir Geoffrey says.

We are told that Tory whips are working on the assumption that the number of letters of no confidence submitted by Tory MPs is already in the double figures. If 54 letters are handed into the 1922 committee, a "no confidence" vote is automatically triggered.

The thing is that, despite his hopes of diverting attention from "Partygate" and other irritating distractions, The Great Leader's campaign hasn't the slightest chance of working.

Before he pressed the panic button, the jabbers were processing about 400,000 people a day. Yet, despite the new, enhanced hype level, and the lengthening queues, the daily rate seems to have struggled to reach half a million on Monday, having peaked at 530,000 on Saturday.

As the Guardian points out, to meet the target of vaccinating all adults by the end of the month, 1.24 million have to be processed every day - assuming a pause on Christmas Day.

Thus, however much he tries, Johnson's Omicrons are a declining asset. If infections do shoot up and the NHS is overwhelmed - the roads littered with car wrecks full of dying children - he will be criticised for not ramping up the booster campaign early enough, and for not taking more robust measures.

If the dead bodies fail to pile up, and the wards are full of happy children being treated for injuries sustained from car crashes, he has to explain why he has spent over half a billion pounds on a failed campaign that wasn't really necessary in the first place.

For the next few days, though, there is likely to be something of a hiatus as health trusts and GP practices work out how they are going to manage the accelerated vaccination campaign. By then, we will be in the run-up to Christmas with people thinking of other things, and it will be hard to motivate them to spend hours in queues waiting for jabs.

Come Christmas week, running into the new year, my guess is that the jab rate will plummet and then will struggle to pick up momentum. Unless by then the hospitals are groaning with new victims, with queues of ambulances waiting to deliver fresh loads, Johnson's "dead cat" ploy will be over. And, with luck, he will be gone by Spring.

Also published on Turbulent Times.