Five things we learnt from this week’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to balance the competing demands of suppressing coronavirus infections while keeping the economy open – and could he also be facing a Commons rebellion?

Here are five things we learnt from this week’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday:

1) Students should be home for Christmas – if we follow the rules

The prospect of students being forced to stay in university halls of residence over Christmas was not ruled out by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden – although he stressed it was something the government hopes to avoid.

“I very much want students to be able to go home at Christmas,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

“If we all pull together and observe these new rules, follow the guidance, then we will be able to get to a point where that should be possible.”

It’s not been a good year for the those starting university for the first time.

First, the colossal disruption of coronavirus, next the stress of exam results picked by what the prime minister at one point called a “mutant algorithm”.

Now freshers have arrived at their universities only to find teaching moving online and lockdown rules for thousands.

With some of the new cohorts of students in Manchester and Glasgow saying they’re unable to purchase food or get their clothes washed, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the idea of Christmas restrictions has gone down so poorly with both students and parents.

The measure would aim to avoid infections being seeded across the country during the winter; but the combination of prior problems and fears about the impact on vulnerable young people have only fuelled criticism.

2) ‘Is this how liberty dies?’

“Liberty dies with government exercising draconian powers without parliamentary scrutiny in advance,” a prominent Conservative MP said.

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker told the show: “I doubt really anyone understands what that law is much beyond the people who wrote the Frequently Asked Questions available on the website.

“We are in an environment where you really can’t know whether you’re a criminal or not with this much law coming to force and changing so fast.”

Around 40 Conservative MPs are backing a push to ensure they can debate coronavirus and vote on lockdown restrictions before they are imposed, uniting behind an amendment to the Coronavirus Act proposed by leading backbencher Sir Graham Brady.

The culture secretary politely described Mr Baker’s words as “slightly overblown,” but the challenge to the government’s once-unassailable majority is clear.

3) Labour could back the Brady amendment

More bad news for the government came in the next interview, as Labour’s shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said, if Sir Graham’s amendment were selected for debate, her party were likely to back it.

“The likelihood is that we would back it,” Ms Stevens said, but added Labour would prefer “what our amendment sets out, which is more transparency and publishing the data”.

Mr Baker said he was “certain” that if Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats banded together with the Tory rebels then Sir Graham’s amendment would pass.

4) Reopen as fast as we can

The economy has to be reopened “as quickly as we can” according to the director general of the CBI.

Asked about the latest coronavirus restrictions, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said: “The restrictions were really disappointing for business.

“Firms have understood, all the way through this, that health has to come first and they also want to avoid a second lockdown above all else, but these are a real blow.

“The hospitality restrictions, the 10pm curfew, these are all hitting businesses really, really hard and the instruction to office workers to go back to working from home where they can, that is really affecting our city centres and small businesses that depend on the hustle and bustle.

“We absolutely have to focus on trying to get our economy back open as quickly as we can.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared outside 11 Downing Street – before announcing the recent measures to support the economy – with Dame Carolyn to one side and the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady on the other.

But the question of how long that “tightrope” can be walked remains.

5) ‘Strengths’ to both Charles Moore and Paul Dacre

One of the bombshells of the weekend was the report that Charles Moore and Paul Dacre could become BBC chairman and head of broadcast regulator Ofcom, respectively.

“Clearly there are strengths to both Charles Moore and Paul Dacre,” said Mr Dowden, but he warned “everyone is getting a little bit ahead of themselves with this”.

The culture secretary added the government is seeking a “strong, big person who can hold the BBC to account”.

“There are three things that I’ve been talking about with the BBC: first of all, ensuring there is genuine impartiality,” he said.

“Secondly, ensuring the BBC is up to the challenges of the future.

“And then thirdly, ensuring that the BBC represents all parts of our nation, not just narrow metropolitan areas.

“It is important that we have genuine, robust scrutiny of the BBC.”

The duo of former newspaper editors (Lord Moore for the Daily Telegraph and Mr Dacre for the Daily Mail) have criticised the BBC repeatedly, with the latter saying in 2007 that the national broadcaster “exercises a kind of cultural Marxism”.

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