Who Are The Tory Rebels Pressuring Boris Johnson To End Lockdown – And How Much Influence Do They Have?
Boris Johnson has ditched his usual ebullience as he prepares to announce his plan for the UK’s way out of lockdown on Monday.
Gone are last year’s proclamations that we can “turn the tide on the virus” in as little as twelve weeks and the summer’s pleas to “eat out to help out”.
Instead the Prime Minister’s ‘Road to Recovery’ is paved with “caution”. Senior ministers have spent the last week tempering optimism over a drop in infections and soaring vaccination rates with a pledge to slowly and gradually roll-back restrictions without specific deadlines, in the hope that this lockdown will be our last.
But if the Prime Pinister’s timeline keeps many of the coronavirus restrictions in place beyond May, he is expected to face fierce pushback from a vocal pressure group within his own party, determined to resist the strictest lockdown measures.
The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) is thought to comprise of around 70 backbench Tory MPs, and they claim to have the support of many more. With prominent members including Steve Baker and chair of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, the group is styled on the once highly influential European Research Group (ERG).
But how powerful really is the CRG? Where the ERG, grounded in decades old Conservative anti-Europe ideology, was able to harness the support of a third of the parliamentary party after the 2017 election to eventually bring down Theresa May’s government and secure a much harder Brexit deal than was initially proposed, the CRG don’t seem quite so set to achieve their aims.
Their voices have been loudly amplified by supporters in the media who share their aims of getting life back to normal, but their critics say they do not speak for anyone much beyond themselves.
Proposed rebellions have fallen flat, scuppered by the fact that Sir Keir Starmer has never whipped Labour to oppose the government on key coronavirus legislation.
One Conservative MP told PoliticsHome that the CRG’s call for all lockdown restrictions to be removed by 1 May was “the extremist end of the proposition”.
“The vast majority of colleagues will be supportive of a route out of lockdown without dates being attached,” the former minister said.“Next week they want the PM to say ‘the vaccine rollout has been a huge success, here’s a route out, I’m not going to put milestones on every stage but I would expect this to happen by then’.
“They [the CRG] are out of the step with the prime minister, who is much more cautious than them.
“The government says ‘yeah noted’ but I don’t think they [the CRG] are making any difference whatsoever”.
Launched last November as the UK entered its second national lockdown, the group had initially looked set to be more of a disturbance to Boris Johnson.
Backbench disquiet over the government’s handling of the pandemic after the Coronavirus Act was bulldozed through the Commons last March – allowing the government to make key decisions on coronavirus measures swiftly, and without parliamentary scrutiny – died down in the summer months when large parts of the economy briefly returned almost to normal.
But with a return to restrictions in the autumn unrest once again ensued among lockdown-sceptic backbenchers. They believed Parliament was being bypassed once more, as a complex ‘tier’ system, which imposed measures regionally, on a sliding scale of severity according to local infection rates.MP Peter Bone accused the government of “signing things into law like presidential executive orders”, but there was little organisation among dissenting voices.
Desmond Swayne pushed the statutory instrument which retrospectively put facemask regulations to a vote, but they were still approved after he failed to drum up the support he had envisioned.
"I alerted colleagues [on WhatsApp] that a vote was taking place, and alerted a few people who I thought were 'with us' on this,” he told PolHome at the time. "And when it came to the crunch, it was me and Christopher Chope. That's all.”
Other like-minded MPs existed but it wasn’t until later in September when the Coronavirus Act returned to parliament, as a result of its six-month sunset clause, that the first serious Commons rebellion was seen.
An amendment by Brady, the influential chair of the 1922 Committee, got the support of dozens of MPs and forced the government into concessions on new measures, guaranteeing more scrutiny of policy.
One of those who signed it was ERG veteran Baker, a renowned operator when it comes to corralling MPs, and the wheels were set in motion for a new group to be formed in response to what was seen as an overly-powerful Number 10 unanswerable to parliament.
Burned by an acrimonious few years, Baker had stepped back from adversarial politics in February 2020, but the self-proclaimed Libertarian seemed more than willing to jump back into the fray over coronavirus restrictions.
Prompted by the second national lockdown in England, announced by Boris Johnson at a dramatic last minute press conference on Halloween, Baker and former chief whip Mark Harper launched the CRG citing the support of at least 50 MPs.
With funding for a PR executive, the voices of its members could be heard more loudly on broadcast media and national newspapers as they tried to shift the dial.
They wrote to the PM calling on him to ditch the tier system after the four-week ‘circuit breaker’ was over, which was rejected after a Labour abstention meant the vote still passed by more than 200.
But they did end up inflicting the biggest Tory rebellion since Johnson became prime minister when 53 MPs voted against the policy, and a further 16 abstained, on 1 December.The next big moment came at the start of this year as Parliament had to vote to approve the third lockdown. The CRG were buoyed by the anger garnered by the almost blanket placement of the country into tier 4 at the end of December, and the swift U-turn over the government’s initial proposals to substantially relax rules on household mixing over Christmas.
But the tide had turned for those opposing coronavirus restrictions. The government’s latest crackdown had come off the back of the alarming explosion of a mutated new variant of Covid-19, first detected in Kent, and responsible for a phenomenal surge in new infections.
“If you saw what happened with the Kent [variant] and still thought you should be listening to [Desmond] Swayne over [Chris] Whitty then you were very much in the minority,” one Tory MP said.
Another said this was the point at which the government knew they could ignore the CRG, that when it “came down to the serious business of saving lives” MPs would back them.
An MP who had been vocally against lockdowns in the first wave of the pandemic said the experience with the Kent variant spiralling out of control in the autumn has since changed their mind and now backs the government.
They said they now think that lockdown ending is for the “scientists and doctors” to decide, adding: “It’s not realistic to lift restrictions by April.”
When it came to crunch time, the CRG were annoyed but not surprised when opposition melted away into abstentions and just 12 MPs voted against the current lockdown measures.
Undeterred, the group threw their weight behind pushing for the reopening of schools, which have been closed across the country since the start of January after initially being forced to return for just one day.
While they have won round more MPs on this cause, others have accused them of bandwagoneering on a cause that many MPs would back anyway.By mid-January the UK death-toll had passed 100,000, with 50,000 of those deaths occurring since November. Infection rates remained catastrophically high and hospital admissions reached numbers higher than April’s first wave peak.
Infections have since fallen steadily throughout February, with the crucial R number falling below one for the first time since October, and more than 15million people in the UK have now received at least one dose of the vaccine. But rates still remain high.
Almost a year into disruption caused by coronavirus, people undoubtedly want to see the end of lockdown, but public mood appears to be aligned with Johnson’s newly cautious and staggered approach.
An exclusive poll for PoliticsHome this week found that 54% of people backed lockdown rules continuing until most of the country has been vaccinated.
Plus, unlike the May administration, which plunged to record levels of un-favourability as the ERG defeated her time and again in the Commons over Brexit, Johnson has managed to maintain popularity even during the worst days of the pandemic, and is now receiving a vaccine bounce as the rollout continues apace.
This month’s Savanta ComRes survey on who would make the best PM puts Johnson up 5 points from January to 43%, while Starmer is down 4 to 27%.
Nonetheless, the CRG battles on. Last weekend Harper led a letter to the government saying 63 Tory MPs wanted the PM to commit to reopening hospitality by Easter and “no legislative restrictions after top 9 vulnerable groups” have had their first vaccine dose, which is well on course to be achieved ahead of the May target.
But the letter was largely dismissed by ministers, including foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who brushed off the challenge during his Sunday morning interview round.
In one Tory WhatsApp group there were doubts that when it came to a vote, 63 colleagues would oppose Johnson’s plans. Another Tory said they’d had no idea about the letter until they read about it in the papers.
It also makes the CRG’s suggestions Johnson could find his own leadership in question in the coming months less potent.
As one Tory MP put it, if Theresa May was still able to win a vote of no confidence at the height of her Brexit problems, then “it’s not likely we’ll ditch the guy who got us a generation-defining majority because he won’t open the pubs quick enough”.