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Controversial Covid Certification Vote Passes But Boris Johnson Suffers Biggest Rebellion Yet

6 min read

Boris Johnson has suffered the biggest rebellion since he became Prime Minister, but still just about managed to get his “plan B” measures to tackle Covid-19 through Parliament.

The vote on the use of Covid certification passed 369 to 126 after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer whipped his MPs to support the measure.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the measure, which means people at large venues will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test, was “a necessary response to the Omicron threat”.

But 99 Tory backbenchers voted against the plans after they derided the so-called “vaccine passports” as illiberal and a “slippery slope” towards authoritarianism.

Starmer said the rebellion was a "very significant blow to the already damaged authority of the Prime Minister".

He thought it showed Johnson was "too weak to discharge the basic functions of government”. 

"I think it's very important to understand how deep the breach of trust is between the Prime Minister and his own party," Starmer added. 

A leadership challenge against the Tory leader has "got to be on the cards" in the new year, senior MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has warned.

Covid certification was one of four sets of measures which were debated in the Commons on Tuesday as the government moved to try and tackle the rise of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.

The extension to the mandate on mask-wearing in more settings passed by 441 votes to 41, with 38 Tories rebelling.

Changes to the system on self-isolation for close contacts of those who test positive for Omicron passed without a division, but the fourth vote on making vaccination mandatory for NHS staff saw a significant rebellion by both Tory and Labour MPs.

Both parties had whipped their members to back the plans, which passed by 285 votes, but a total of 100 voted against, including 61 Tories and 22 from Labour, one of whom was shadow minister Rachel Maskell.

During this afternoon's debate on "plan B" the government was accused of developing a "ministry of fear” over Omicron.  

At a meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs shortly before the vote, Johnson tried to woo his party to back the measures. 

“I want this country to be as free as possible,” he told MPs as he made a last ditch plea to get them to support the "sensible and balanced" measures, after fears that more than 100 of them would break the party line and vote against.

One senior MP who left the meeting said it was a “very serious, very solid” speech from the prime minister that “MPs wanted to hear”. He said it “calmed a lot of nerves” and it appeared to have had some effect.  

Paul Bristow, who had previously said he would not back the plans, told reporters gathered outside the meeting that he would now back the government.

He said the data presented to him shows “things were far worse in terms of exponential rise” than he had initially feared.

“It was just a very convincing performance,” Bristow added. 

"It's it's not been an easy decision, it’s one of the most difficult things I've done as I've been an MP, but I don't want to turn around in two weeks time and we’ve had a really difficult situation and I’ve been found wanting.”

But one rebel who did not attend the 1922 meeting said "anyone who was taken in by the PM will regret it" as he believed backing today's measures would embolden the government to introduce further restrictions in the near future.

Johnson's performance failed to have much of an affect though, as a total of 96 Conservative rebels voted against the Covid certification plans, plus two more acted as tellers for the noes.

It was almost a third of the party’s total MPs, and close to double the previous biggest rebellion of Johnson’s premiership of 54.

Among them was Louie French, who was only elected as the new MP for Old Bexley & Sidcup in a by-election 12 days ago, and 11 former Cabinet ministers.

A former minister said the size of the rebellion "showed the seriousness of the position [Johnson] is in”.

"This is about those who want us to get out of the destructive cycle of lockdowns and shuttering society,” one of those who voted against told PoliticsHome.

A senior Tory had rebelled against the government despite threats from Whips. "If they looked at history, they should know I reacted badly to that," they said.

One 2019 intake Tory MP: “They shouldn’t have picked that fight. I still don’t understand why they did that to themselves.”

MP for Bosworth Dr Luke Evans, who voted both for and against the Covid certification, which is a way of abstaining, had said "I worry about the slippery slope," during the debate on the measures. 

“What businesses, what society interactions or what infections may become in scope in future months or future years?"

The emergency measures introduced to tackle the rising tide of Covid cases are due to expire in Spring 2022. 

But Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke said a "fundamental question" still needed to be answered over the future of certification that demonstrates health status. 

"Do we demand everybody has a lateral flow test before they go anywhere?" he asked. 

"Do we find strains that may not cause a lot of disease and let them spread to try and defeat the virus? Or do we have to take the Singapore model and say 'on your head be it', if you need the hospital treatment and there will be financial consequences to that."

The former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom said the new regulations were a "slippery slope which I do not want to slip". She told MPs she has supported the government throughout the pandemic when she could "see the present danger we faced”.

"But this time around the measures proposed are precautionary, just in case, and I cannot see where this will end,” she added.

"Covid will be with us for many years to come and it's unthinkable that every autumn from now on we will be limiting the quality of life for all citizens just to be on the safe side."

But one minister felt Johnson had made the point at the 1922 Committee that “lots and lots of people are going to get this, and you don't need many of them to go to hospital before it becomes a real problem”.

“So let’s grip it, and it's either grip it a little bit now, or grip it a lot later," they added.

"Even once these are in place we are still the freest country.

“We’ve still got more freedoms, more things open, more hospitality, more nightclubs than a load of other global competitors, even once these things are in place.”

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