When a revolt of Government backbenchers swells, the Leader of the Opposition must choose: is he to be a John Smith or a William Hague?
In 1993, John Major’s administration was attempting to steer its Bill to enshrine the Maastricht Treaty into domestic law through the Commons.
John Smith sought tactical opportunities to vote down its provisions (forcing a vote on confidence on one occasion in the wake of having done so).
This had the plus, for Labour, of defeating the Government and weakening its standing, but the minus of disincentivising Conservative backbenchers to oppose Major.
For after all, one doesn’t like voting with the Labour Party if one is a Tory backbencher.
In 1997, Tony Blair’s newly-elected Labour administration to proposed a cut in the payments of some benefits to lone parents who were new claimants.
Hague decided to vote with the Government – a decision presumably informed by not having the numbers to defeat it were the Conservatives to join with Labour rebels.
But his decision had the effect of maximising the Labour revolt, as horror at the prospect of voting with the Tories swelled the ranks of the rebels.
Furthermore, a Minister and four junior members of the Government resigned in protest.
Which takes us to Starmer.
As I write, the Labour leader is set to be a Hague rather than a Smith. He seems willing to shun the tactical gain of defeating the Government in order to win the strategic one of maximising Tory rebellion.
This would cover Starmer’s bases. He is unwilling to alientate pro-lockdown voters, who comprise much of Labour’s base: public sector workers who are relatively insulated against the effect of restrictions.
Furthermore, he is offering the Conservative rebels a risk-free option. Since there is no prospect of today’s measures being defeated, they are insulated against consequences that might follow their defeat.
For in the event of the NHS being unable to cope with Omicron, the Government will get the blame – not the rebels.
The latter now also appear to have strength in numbers.
Once a critical mass of backbenchers revolt, as Theresa May kept finding out when she put her Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons, revolt gathers its own momentum.