Tory mask converts and holdouts witness an object lesson in disinformation

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. There’s a fair chance you haven’t heard of Maggie Throup. There again, there’s a fair chance that Maggie Throup hasn’t heard of Maggie Throup. She’s that forgettable, even her shadow disowns her. She has the permanently bemused air of someone harmless who is never quite sure why she happens to be in any one place at any one time or what she’s supposed to be doing there. Someone who would be out of her depth in a teacup. And yet, for reasons no one has as yet determined, she is the UK’s new vaccines minister during the worst public health crisis in 100 years.

Still, her complete unsuitability for the job made her the ideal health minister for Sajid Javid to send out to take the flak for him by answering Labour’s urgent question on the Covid pandemic. After all, the less she knew, the less chance of her accidentally revealing something potentially embarrassing. Like the fact that the health secretary hadn’t seemed entirely sure what government policy was during his press conference the day before. The Saj messing things up was not a great look. The Throupster sounding confused was no more than what most people anticipated. Expectation management and all that.

Related: Yes, we have to live with Covid – but not with such irresponsible ministers | Philip Ball

The Speaker appeared to have granted the UQ as much out of pique at the government having yet again used a presser to announce its policy – even if that policy was to do nothing except carrying on buggering things up – rather than direct to parliament as in any hope of getting useful answers, and Lindsay Hoyle began by giving the government frontbench a bollocking. Throup used the time to rearrange her papers in some kind of order. Though not a coherent one, as her opening remarks amounted to an acknowledgment that plan A wasn’t working, so the government was moving on to plan B. Which wasn’t the plan B that involved face masks, working from home and vaccine passports, but the plan B to repeat plan A.

Understandably, Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, was unimpressed. He wanted to know just how bad things would have to get for the government to implement the real plan B as opposed to the fake plan B. And was there a plan C in which no one but the prime minister would be able to socialise with people with whom they were not sharing a home? And surely, he said, the biggest problem we had was that the vaccine programme had stalled. Young people weren’t getting their initial jabs and older people were experiencing delays in getting their boosters.

Throup looked hurt and declared she didn’t like Ashworth’s tone. Why couldn’t he accept that the right thing to do was carry on with the same plan even when it was clear the original plan wasn’t working? So until he spoke nicely to her, she wasn’t going to answer any of his questions.

The chair of the health select committee, Jeremy Hunt, suggested it might be better if the government allowed people to receive their booster jabs sooner than six months and one week after their second vaccination: he was apparently unaware that some GP practices have already factored in the Department of Health’s tendency to cock things up and have already started doing just this.

He also wondered whether it might be better if Throup were to attend cabinet as Nadhim Zahawi, the previous vaccines minister, had done. The Throupster didn’t think this was at all a good idea. She had plenty of contact with Boris Johnson through watching him on the nightly news programmes and if she were to see him more often in real life there was more chance of her getting things wrong.

Still, at least there weren’t many Tories in the Commons to witness her humiliation. Though it was noticeable that six out of the 12 backbenchers who could be bothered to show up – Covid is so over for most Conservative MPs – had had a Damascene conversion and were wearing masks. More than had worn face coverings for a packed prime minister’s questions the day before. Maybe it’s slowly dawning on them that if you want the public to take the virus seriously, it’s best to lead by example.

Naturally there were some refuseniks. Not least Desmond Swayne, who insisted all masks were a waste of time. He won’t be happy until he’s had open heart surgery with an unsterilised saw. Throup fidgeted and said it was fine for Tory MPs to do as they pleased about masks. She obviously hadn’t been listening to Saj’s press conference the day before.

What was remarkable, though, was that we actually ended up knowing less by the end of the 45-minute session than we had at the start. It had been an object lesson in disinformation. Nothing on why the UK had by far the worst rate of infection in Europe. Nothing on how bad things would need to get for the government to implement the real plan B. Nothing on nothing. The Throupster had played a blinder.

Even more astonishing was that she was to repeat the performance two hours later when she gave a Commons statement in which she made the same non-announcements and gave the same non-answers to the same questions as before. As an exercise in time-wasting, it was peerless. Though to someone of Throup’s talents, it appeared to come naturally. Just about all we learned second time round was that plan C wasn’t being actively considered “to her knowledge”. Whoops. Prepare to cancel Christmas.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting