British politics is proving a fine laboratory for times of transition.
Boris Johnson’s enemies are exultant at his latest woes: a crushing by-election defeat and a parliamentary vote in which he endured the biggest Conservative party rebellion since – well since the Brexit horrors a few years ago under his predecessor Theresa May.
But oddly enough, it looks like he might keep on standing.
Odder still. He was carried through with the parliamentary votes of those who hate him most: the Labour party and the anti-Brexit faction in his Conservative party.
OK – Parliamentary confidence is not what it was, since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act removed the power of the Prime Minister to call a snap election. So Labour chose support for Boris’s limited Covid passports over a chance to inflict a nominal-but-non-consequential defeat on the government; while Tory Boris-haters saved their knives for a deeper thrust.
Which suggests that at the heart of the latest turmoil is a family tantrum in the Conservative coalition: the children trashing the Christmas tree because dad isn’t listening.
And it’s important because it is surfacing a real debate on global Covid policy.
Underlying the parliamentary rebellion was the presumption that future public health measures need to be low cost and voluntary. The logic of that is that if you don’t feel safe, quit your job and lock the door (or perhaps move to New Zealand – when you can).
It shouldn’t escape notice that this is a direct challenge, not just to China’s zero Covid policy, but to any coercive management regime.
There are reasons to welcome the emergence of a more binary debate on policy approaches, between – let’s call them – accepters and resisters.
Accepters will benefit from early adaptation and response to the new world environment, at the cost of faster circulation of the viruses. Resisters will accumulate the costs of social coercion, economic distortion and potentially misplaced public expenditure.
The trade-off between Covid response and dealing with other looming problems may well be the determining factor.
Losing a rock-solid rural English seat to the EU-loving Liberal Democrats indicates – shall we say – a lack of consensual support for Boris’s choice of trade-offs at this stage.
At the same time, the logic impelling Conservative accepters is probably still a minority position (if we can judge, for example, by November’s referendum in Switzerland where 60% or so backed Covid passports.)
Hence the eruption of the furious debate between Boris and his most committed Tory colleagues on the transition from the status quo.
Because it’s not just Covid, it’s also Boris’s tax increases; his (quite-literally) bankrupt climate policy; his industrial policy; perhaps even a perceived failure to tackle wokeness fast enough.
You might have some sympathy for Boris. “I broke the mould on Brexit”, he may feel, “why take even more risks?”
But events seem to be removing the room for compromise.
He still seems to be the indispensable man, largely because those same events also reveal the inadequacy of those trying to articulate an alternate path. But he must be painfully aware that his party wants him to lead them in a different direction – and it’s his job to choose the right one without the benefit of hindsight.