Politics as normal? Not when winter could inflame Covid
Are things back to normal in Westminster? In some ways, it feels like it. MPs, staffers and peers returned to parliament at the beginning of last week, and business as usual seemingly resumed.
Policies were announced in the press, fights were fought in the chamber, glasses of warm white wine were drunk across SW1. All was well. Or was it? If you looked closer, not everything felt quite right.
For a start, there is the reshuffle that has been on the cusp of happening for what feels like months. In fact, it hasn’t just felt like months; one of the first columns I wrote for The Independent was about the politics of reshuffles, and that was published in May.
Whispers and rumours kept going through the summer, and reached fever pitch once recess came to an end; surely, everyone thought, something had to happen then. Except – nothing did. There may be a reshuffle soon, we’re told; but by god they are taking their time.
Similarly, Keir Starmer seems to be dragging his feet a bit. The Labour leader was mocked over the weekend for intending to publish a 14,000-word pamphlet on his political beliefs; not on any concrete policies, to be clear, only on broader brush ideas.
It is not an inherently bad idea, but it is quite amusing. Though Labour supporters had been asking the leadership for a more precise vision from their leader, this feels like overkill, or elaborate procrastination.
Then there is the general mood in Westminster. The first week back after recess is usually quite a fun and hectic one; everyone is in London again and eager to catch up, everyone’s to-do list is endless, everyone is dying to have a bit of a gossip and find out what is going on.
The past 10 days should have been especially hectic and fun, given that Westminster was last normal in March 2020; instead, it often felt a bit flat. Few people managed to go on a proper holiday in July and August, and no one looked especially refreshed. Most people, in fact, seemed quite knackered still.
We are pretending that everything is back to normal but we are all, to different extents, terrified that things will soon take a turn for the worse again
It has not helped that politics has, on the whole, been quite tedious in the past few weeks. Take vaccine passports: on Monday, No 10 said “checks on the vaccine status of people going to nightclubs and other crowded events remained a crucial part of the government’s winter Covid plan due to be unveiled by the prime minister tomorrow”.
The day before, health secretary Sajid Javid had told the BBC “a scheme for vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and large events in England [would] not be going ahead”. A week before that, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi had talked up vaccine passports as a way to safely keep clubs open.
There has been a similar rhythm to debates about booster jabs, vaccinating children, and everything else related to the pandemic. Something will definitely happen, then it won’t, then it might, then it will, and so on.
The indecisiveness of the government is to blame, of course, but so is the general uncertainty about what this winter has in store for us. After all, things still seemed fairly rosy this time last year, and we all know what happened after that. That we have vaccines now changes the game, of course, but it does not mean we are not headed into the unknown. I am an optimistic person by nature, and it has not served me well over the past 18 months.
I suspect this is why everything in Westminster feels slightly static and off-kilter at the moment; we are pretending that everything is back to normal but we are all, to different extents, terrified that things will soon take a turn for the worse again.
There is nothing we can do about it, apart from keeping our fingers crossed that things really are getting back to normal. “Just sit and wait” isn’t the best advice one can end a column on but, really, what else is there to say?
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