Opposition parties join Tory rebels to fight virus measures

UK opposition parties are uniting around a plan to defeat Boris Johnson in a crucial vote next week by joining forces with a large group of Conservative backbenchers to give parliament a bigger say over any further coronavirus restrictions.

At least 60 Tory rebels are expected to be joined by Labour, the Scottish National party and other smaller parties to defeat the government and back an amendment tagged on to a vote to renew emergency powers given to the prime minister when the pandemic hit in March.

The level of support among Tory MPs for the amendment, which was proposed by Graham Brady, a senior Conservative and chair of the influential 1922 committee of MPs, would overturn Mr Johnson’s 80-seat majority for the first time since December’s election.

The decision by Mr Johnson this week to impose sweeping nationwide restrictions in England, aimed at controlling rising infection levels, has triggered the latest backlash among Conservative backbenchers.

A number of party grandees said there was now a “clear” majority opposed to the government’s approach to the pandemic, which they believe will inflict further damage on the battered economy.

The move, which included shutting pubs and restaurants at 10pm, has widened the distrust between Downing Street and the Conservative party at Westminster, which has been building over the summer as ministers stumbled their way through the pandemic.

The amendment was proposed by Graham Brady, a senior Conservative and chair of the influential 1922 committee of MPs © Peter MacDiarmid/Shutterstock

Downing Street has so far resisted supporting the amendment although it has signalled it wants to “work closely” with MPs. “We have been clear that it is vital that we can take action to stop the transmission of the virus and protect the NHS,” a Number 10 spokesperson said

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All opposition parties said they were still finalising their position ahead of the vote. But one well-placed party insider said Labour was “minded” to support Sir Graham’s amendment, while a Lib Dem official said the party was “sympathetic”.

The amendment has already been signed by three Labour MPs: former deputy leader Harriet Harman, John Spellar and John Cryer, who is chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Another parliamentary official said “the SNP and Plaid are also inclined to support it”. MPs from the Democratic Unionist party are also expected to back it.

If Sir Graham’s amendment is passed, parliament would have to be consulted on any future use of the emergency powers to control the pandemic. But Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle will first have to select the amendment for a vote on Wednesday. 

“My amendment has considerable support across the House, I hope that will help to persuade [Mr Hoyle] to allow it to be debated on Wednesday,” Sir Graham told the Financial Times. “I am grateful to all members who are lending their support in the interests of good governance.”

Notable Conservatives supporting the amendment include former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Damian Green, David Davis, John Redwood.

Bar staff encourage customers to leave at the 10pm deadline. A large number of MPs are opposed to the government’s approach to the pandemic © Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

One Tory MP said: “There is a constituency of about 100 or so MPs in the party who loathe Boris. But when you add the libertarians who dislike these measures, you get a majority who are angry.”

Another said “there is a really mutinous feeling in the air, a sense that he [Mr Johnson] has lost control of his own party.”

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Concerns among the party’s MPs that Mr Johnson has taken the wrong approach were underlined by their positive response to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s winter economic plan on Thursday. They particularly welcomed the chancellor’s message that “we must learn to live with it, and live without fear”.

A number of backbenchers have warned Number 10 against further nationwide coronavirus measures — such as restricting households in England from meeting up. “Not allowing families to meet is a deeply un-Conservative thing, even to say it aloud seems a mad proposal,” one said.

Criticism of Downing Street tends to focus on the officials around the prime minister instead of Mr Johnson personally — especially chief adviser Dominic Cummings who is seen by MPs as the “co-driver” of the government. “The problem is with the medieval court, not the king,” one well-placed Tory said.

Some Conservatives have discussed a plan to oust Mr Cummings — in the similar way they forced Theresa May to sack her two key aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill after the embarrassing result of the 2017 election. But the plotters have concluded any attempt would fail because Mr Johnson’s standing in the party was still strong.

One senior Tory said there were “layers of insulation” from different parts of the parliamentary party to protect the prime minister. “There’s the Brexiters and then the 2019 intake. For all the unhappiness, I can’t see anything fundamentally changing.”

Yet there are still concerns that the prime minister is struggling with the challenges posed by the pandemic. One government official who has seen him up close said: “Boris is stuck in the wrong gear, he’s constantly struggling to be on top of events. He doesn’t do well when he is constantly on the back foot and he hasn’t felt in control of events since the pandemic began.”

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