Not so long ago, there was little to separate Andrew Bridgen from most Conservative lockdown-skeptics. Like Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery crew, he raised vital concerns about lockdowns and opposed the unnecessary imposition of vaccine passports. Doing so did not stop him from lauding the vaccine rollout and encouraging others to get a jab.
So how did Bridgen get from a position that was quite common in Tory circles – and shared by yours truly – to him being stripped of the Tory whip for him tweeting that the side effects of the Covid vaccine were “the biggest crime since the Holocaust”? In essence, he has become a cautionary tale about letting healthy skepticism take you too far down the rabbit hole.
Bridgen has released a Kevin Spacey-esque video protesting his innocence, denying any intended offence, and suggesting he will deploy lawyers to clear his name. Judgments of his probity are hardly helped by his having already been suspended from the Commons for five days for breaching lobbying rules at the point when he reached for Twitter.
It should be considered a national embarrassment that Liberal Democrats are now outnumbered amongst MPs by those stripped of their party whips. Nevertheless, Bridgen’s newfound absence from the Conservative fold does at least mean he cannot hand in his traditional letter of no confidence to Graham Brady when a couple of poor headlines about the Prime Minister give him the yips.
That was a joke, obviously. Then again, having spent the day dabbling into the world of vaccine scepticism, I imagine the suggestion Bridgen was suspended just to protect Sunak would not be an outlandish proposition to a few of his fellow travelers. I much preferred Laurence Fox when he was solving mysteries with Kevin Whately than seeing him in his new role as an advocate for ivermectin.
With that in mind, I’d like to analyse what is going on with the MP for North West Leicestershire to see how this farce could occur. One cannot avoid the tweet’s particular wording. Bridgen claims he was quoting an Israeli cardiologist, to rebut any suggestion he was being antisemitic.
Despite his history of somewhat-colourful language, we have no reason to believe Bridgen meant any specific offence by his comments. But I’m not Jewish. I can understand why many are outraged. The form of wording was designed to shock and grab attention. Using the Holocaust to do so is grotesque, especially in the month of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Then there’s the science of the issue. Readers, I had hoped the days of trawling through reports on R rates, antibodies, and herd immunity were long gone. Like some Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War into the seventies, many insist on keeping the old battle going. And so my Thursday was spent brandishing my Biology GCSE and investigating whether Bridgen was right.
The short answer is no. By November last year, after more than 45 million people had received at least two doses in England and Wales, 59 deaths involving the vaccines had been registered in the UK. By contrast, government figures suggest the vaccines are 90 per cent effective at preventing deaths, falling to 50 per cent after six months – saving tens of thousands of lives.
When one considers that against the small number who have suffered because of taking it, the basic utilitarian calculus is clear. The death of any one person is a tragedy. But there is no evidence that the vaccine’s side effects are serious enough to make this a scandal on the scale of thalidomide, another popular analogy amongst sceptics.
That is not to say there are no side effects. Since April 2021, we have seen reports of vaccinated people, and especially young men, suffering from myocarditis: an inflammation of the heart muscle. Again, these are incredibly rare. Up to late November last year, there were only 83 cases of heart inflammation reported in under-18s following the Pfizer vaccine, and none following boosters.
To put this in context, the risk of myocarditis from Covid itself is much higher, at around 1,500 in a million. There is also no suggestion that heart inflammation is any more likely from a Covid jab than, say, the flu one. The only caveat one can add is that there is nobody in the world who has a jab more than two- and a-bit years. Any very long-term side effects remain unknown – as with Covid itself.
In a previous article for us, Bridgen’s fellow backbencher Christopher Chope referenced the more than 2,000 fatalities that have been reported in reference to the vaccine to the Government’s Yellow Card scheme. This should be treated with caution. People can refer to anything that happens to them after the vaccine. Response numbers were exacerbated by the prominence of the pandemic.
With the science done, onto the politics. Why would Bridgen tweet this? There is one school of thought that suggests he thinks he is on his way out anyway. He wouldn’t be the first Tory MP to look at their prospects for the next election and skedaddle first. He is a serial malcontent and cannot expect many favours from the Sunak ascendancy.
I don’t find this convincing. Bridgen’s suspension from the Commons for lobbying was temporary; he had not been looking for an opportunity to go A.W.O.L. That he clearly wants to clear his name suggests he does not want to end his time as an MP any time soon. Even with our current dire straits, his seat should be eminently winnable.
The solution to the mystery – pax Glass Onion – might be in plain sight. Bridgen tweeted what he did because he believed it. He has been making comments like this for months, and moving in circles where many would not vigorously at his expressing them. He expected any outrage from his tweet to redound to his benefit, and not see him kicked out with the word antisemitism hanging in the air.
Bridgen is a serial rebel. He was early out of the blocks demanding the resignation of the last four Prime Ministers. He loathes the European Union, opposes to HS2 (if occasionally benefiting from it), and helped force the U-turn over military intervention in Syria in 2013. One would have expected him to be a lockdown-sceptic whilst Covid-19 was still a twinkle in a Wuhan virologist’s eye.
On all these topics, in some form or another, I am sympathetic to Bridgen. The greatest gift conservatives can give to politics is the raised eyebrow. We are the Jeeves to the Wooster of any bonkers idea proposed by progressives. Having someone to stand athwart history yelling stop is an essential part of the political process. The freedom to do so must be protected.
The trouble with being a natural sceptic is struggling to know when to stop. The constant questioning of governments, officials, and statistics erodes your trust. You find yourself falling in with unusual crowds. Some now dismissed as crackpots might turn out to be Galileo. But most just turn out to be crackpots. Before you know it, you’re tweeting about the Holocaust and looking like a fool.
Whether Bridgen should be readmitted or allowed to stand at the next election is a question for another day. I can only say that I would question the value to the Commons of a man who would tweet something so misguided. Backbench scepticism is a vital part of our democracy. Defending it should not mean excusing the appalling or justifying the simply wrong.