Matt Hancock Must Guarantee MPs A Vote On New Coronavirus Restrictions Or The Government Will Be Defeated, Says Rebel Ringleader Graham Brady
The leader of a growing band of Tory rebels, Sir Graham Brady, says Matt Hancock must offer “explicit guarantees” MPs will get to vote on new coronavirus restrictions before they come into force or the government faces defeat on its flagship pandemic legislation.
Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to cave to the demands of his backbenchers after dozens of Conservatives signed an amendment put forward by Sir Graham, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee.
On Sunday morning, the Labour frontbencher Jo Stevens told the Sophy Ridge show the "likelihood" was that her party would support it.
Brady told PoliticsHome it is “a fundamental matter of principle that the House ought to be consulted” before new lockdown measures are put in place.
It comes amid growing anger from MPs the Commons has been ignored by ministers as they have repeatedly changed the rules, affecting the lives of their constituents.
Sir Graham said he was spurred to act after his own constituency of Altrincham and Sale West was put into and then taken out of extra local restrictions, only to be put back under the measures hours later.
“It’s been a frustration for a long time, I was wary even back in March when we gave the emergency powers very rapidly. And I accepted it on the basis the House was about to go into recess and there was plausible concern NHS critical care capacity would be overwhelmed.
“But then when we found that every review of the lockdown, the government simply continued, and that when Parliament returned on 21 April we still didn’t have decisions put to the House of Commons.
“I thought that was wrong.”
He added: “But I guess it came to a head really with the experience of the additional local restrictions that were put in for Trafford and Greater Manchester at the end of July.
“And then the experience of the government removing Trafford from the extra restrictions at the end of August - and then 12 hours putting us back in again.
“And in none of this was the House of Commons, or me as a local MP, able to express a view.”
With the six-month renewal of the coronavirus powers due for a vote on Wednesday, he has written an amendment which could bind the government into more votes. It has more than 50 signatories, including 42 Tories as of Friday afternoon - enough to defeat the government if selected, but there is some debate as to whether it will be allowed.
Such a motion would not normally be amendable; it would simply be the case that MPs either back it or not, with the final decision to be taken by the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle on the morning of the debate.
On whether it would be selected for debate, Mr Brady said: “Some people have suggested it is 'disorderly' in itself. It was drafted by a very senior clerk, who when I raised that with him gave me a very clear explanation why he is right.
“So I'm confident that it is selectable, but it is still - as with any amendment - a decision for the Speaker.”
He confirmed he had been to see Sir Lindsay, who he said suggested it was “more likely to be selected” if it had support from across the House, which is why he was pleased to have chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, John Cryer, put his name to it along with party grandees Harriet Harman and John Spellar.
A spokesperson for the Speaker would only confirm the motion is “technically amendable”.
They added: “The Speaker will take advice from the clerks about whether the amendment is in scope before deciding whether to select it.”
There is also debate over whether any amendment, if passed, would have any binding effect on the government, given it is not a vote on the legislation itself.
Sir Graham said: “It wouldn’t have statutory force because the motion itself isn't statute, so what it would be is a resolution of the House instructing ministers to do something - and that has constitutional force.”
And Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, told PoliticsHome: “This isn’t supposed to be an epic rebellion but an indication that people want to have wider consultation.
“I think what this is a very clear sign of, and I think the government recognises this, is the whole country needs to be involved in decision making and the decisions that we are taking and for us to have consent we need to consult widely and part of that consultation is with the people sent to Parliament to represent their communities.”
Mr Spellar said: “What we are trying to do is say to government you can’t just go rampaging around making decisions based on a very small group of advisers.
“If you say you’ve gone from the science, there’s a significant division in the scientific world.”
It is a view echoed by Sir Graham: “I'm quite sceptical about a number of these measures, I think they are grossly intrusive into people's civil liberties, the right to family life, but I suspect that there is a fairly strong majority of the House that would support the government in most of what it's doing.
"So I don't think by securing these votes we’re suddenly going to see the government losing them all and these powers being stripped away.
“I think it's just a fundamental matter of principle that the House ought to be consulted, that if people's liberties are being removed it should be done with the consent of parliament on their behalf.
“And also that ministerial decision-making will be improved if they know they’ve got to justify themselves in the House of Commons and the House will express its views in a vote.”
Mr Johnson is likely to want to avoid another confrontation with his own backbenchers after already having to change tack on the Internal Markets Bill, with talks set to take place with Mr Brady and other rebels on Monday.
One MP suggested more names could go down on the amendment over the weekend ,with another signatory telling PoliticsHome it would be “dumb” if the government did not reflect on the number of disaffected Tories and try to come up with a compromise, or table their own amendment.
On whether he would pull the amendment, Sir Graham said it would need Matt Hancock to say from the despatch box that MPs will get votes on new restrictions before they are enacted, a point he said he had already pressed upon Number 10.
“If there were sufficient explicit guarantees given on the floor of the House then I may not press it to a vote,” he said.
“But I think it's really important to have the opportunity to press it to a vote to make sure the health secretary gives those explicit guarantees.”
He said the time lag between announcements being made and the restrictions coming into force was the perfect time to hold a debate, pointing to the ‘rule of six’ policy.
“That was leaked to the press on Tuesday, the PM made a statement about it on Wednesday, it wasn't going to come into force until the following Monday - but the Thursday was just general debates in the House of Commons,” he explained.
“It would have been entirely possible to change the schedule, put in a full day’s debate on the ‘rule of six’ with a vote at the end of it, and the government simply chose not to.”
Pressed on whether his amendment was in response to ministers not listening to backbench concerns, he said: “I put the point to Matt Hancock in the chamber as to why these powers had not been put to the House on the Wednesday, and he said ‘I'm talking to the business managers about how this can happen’, but it still hasn't happened two weeks later, there still hasn't been a debate or a vote on what was introduced then."
The PM’s spokesman has repeatedly said there would be a vote on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020, and that MPs also have the chance to vote on individual regulations.
But there has been criticism of that system, which is known as an ‘affirmative statutory instrument’, which allows the Commons a vote within 28 days of the legislation coming into force.
Some MPs have said they want new powers to be created as ‘draft affirmative statutory instruments’, where the vote takes place before they start to take affect.
But the government have said with a backlog of legislation from the summer, along with the fact the process can pass through the Commons quickly, but takes weeks to get though the House of Lords, they have argued it was not possible.
One potential solution may be to give MPs the guarantee that an ‘affirmative’ SI will be debated within seven days, rather than it taking the full month, but the government have stuck to the line that “the current position does provide for parliamentary scrutiny".
Disclosure: Sir Graham Brady is editor of the House magazine, which is part of the Dods Group.