It had gone much as expected when the Commons had debated the six-month extension to coronavirus regulations. Matt Hancock had opened in rather lacklustre fashion, safe in the knowledge that there was no chance of a government defeat as Labour had already committed to giving its support, and trying not to sound too condescending when dealing with predictable interventions from Mark Harper and other Covid Recovery Group lockdown refuseniks from his own backbenches.
Yes, said Door Matt, he quite understood his colleagues’ concerns but the roadmap out of lockdown was not up for discussion. In fact, he couldn’t even guarantee he wouldn’t be back in six months’ time making the case for a further extension if some new variant or a third wave made further restrictions necessary.
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, had given a similar boilerplate speech in response. The bill was far from perfect, blah-di-blah, and there were still parts of it that were draconian, but it was still on-balance necessary. So with a heavy heart and great reluctance etc, etc.
Then into the mix came the Tory libertarian Charles Walker. Now Walker is a fundamentally decent man, who first came to my attention in 2015 when he broke down in tears in the chamber as William Hague and David Cameron tried to strong-arm him into a coup against then Speaker John Bercow. But since then he has rather slipped under the radar, until today, when he sprinkled himself with stardust by delivering the most surreal Commons speech that I have heard in the seven years I’ve been sketching. Satire is impossible at times like this, so all I can do is transcribe what he said while including some thoughts and comments in italics.
“I want to talk about milk,” he began, “because in the remaining days of this lockdown I am going to allow myself an act of defiance, my own protest that others may join me in. I am going to protest about the price of milk.” Why milk? We never got to find out. Not even if it was skimmed, semi-skimmed or full-fat. “Now I’m not sure whether I think the price is too high, or the price is too low, I will come to that decision later.” He never did get round to saying what he felt was the right price.
“But for the next few days I am going to walk around London with a pint of milk on my person, because that pint will represent my protest. And there may be others who will choose to walk around London with a pint of milk on their person as well, and perhaps as we walk past each other in the street our eyes might meet, we might even stop for a chat, but I was thinking to myself, and I will continue to think to myself.” What does this even mean?
“What will their pint of milk represent? What will their protests be? Perhaps they will be protesting the roaring back of a mental health demon brought on by lockdown, perhaps it will be protesting a renewed battle with anorexia, with depression, with anxiety, with addiction.” Time to go to Milk Anonymous. “Perhaps with their pint of milk they will be protesting the lack of agency in their life, not being able to make a meaningful decision. Maybe a loss of career or job or business. Maybe they will be protesting this country’s slide into authoritarianism, or perhaps they’ll be protesting the fact that we allow unelected officials at No 10 to lecture us how to live our lives.” Yes, but why would they too be doing it with a carton of milk?
“There might even be people with a pint of milk quietly protesting that the route out of lockdown is too slow, or perhaps even too fast. You see the point is, these people can project what they like, what concern they have on to their point of milk.” But you still haven’t explained about the milk. “My protest, as I said, it will be about none of those things, it will simply be about the price of milk, and as I said for the next few days, I will have that pint on me.” But what about the price? And what if you drink half and chuck the rest away?
“It will be of symbolic importance to me and at the end of the day, it will be warm, it will have separated. And I can choose whether to drink or pour it away because it will be robbed of its refreshing elegance by the time it’s been in my pocket for 12 hours. And if I pour it away, that might cause people some concern but it doesn’t matter, because it’s my pint of milk”. No one was saying that it wasn’t your pint of milk or that you couldn’t do what you liked with it. “And it’s my protest and I’m not seeking people’s endorsement or support in my protests. And you know I heard, and I listened.” But what did you hear? Voices?
“I heard and I listened to my honourable friend.” Presumably Door Matt. “This will pass, my protest will pass, the pandemic will pass. And in years to come, I will be sitting at my kitchen table, perhaps with my wife, and hopefully my children will still want to see me, and I will break away from our excited conversation about the day because I will spot that pint of milk on the table.” But what if you’ve poured it away and there’s no milk to look at? “And that pint shall remind me that the act of protest is a freedom. The freedom, not a right, and unless you cherish freedoms every day, unless you fight for freedoms, every day they end up being taken away from you.” Er … no one’s going to take away your pint of milk.
Genius or madness. Your call. Personally, I’d be for giving Walker the benefit of the doubt. He certainly brightened up yet another dull day in lockdown. This was politics on acid. And wouldn’t it be just great if at the next PMQs, when Boris Johnson is failing to give a straight answer, the whole house rose as one, pint of milk in hand, in silent protest. “Free the Milk One.”