Boris Johnson Has Suffered The Worst Rebellion Of This Parliament, But Won A Key Vote On Tier Restrictions
Boris Johnson suffered his worst rebellion of this Parliament but saw his tier system of coronavirus restrictions pass a vote in the Commons (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)
Boris Johnson has won a vote on his controversial tier system of coronavirus restrictions but only after suffering the worst rebellion by his own MPs of this Parliament.
A total of 53 Conservatives rejected his plans to place almost the entirety of England into tough new measures once the second lockdown ends tomorrow night. There were fraught scenes in the Commons, with one MP describing the atmosphere as reminding them of the Brexit votes in 2019 which eventually brought down Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May.
But the legislation still passed through the Commons by 291 votes to 78 - a winning margin of 213 - after Labour’s official policy was to abstain, although 15 of the party’s MPs defied the whip and voted against it.
However, it is far from a convincing victory for Number 10, with the number of rebels failing to back the plans enough to have comfortably wiped out the government’s 80-seat majority if the opposition had all voted against it.
Among them were seven former Cabinet ministers and a host of senior figures in the party, along with a dozen from the 2019 intake of new Conservatives.
It represents the biggest number of Tory MPs defying a three-line whip since last year’s election victory, and does not bode well for future votes on coronavirus restrictions due next month.
Explaining how the Prime Minister ended up facing yet another rebellion, Conservative ex-minister Tim Loughton MP told PoliticsHome: "I don't know why the government is doing this.
"We have had eight months of lockdown and in those eight months the government could have learned an awful lot about what things cost, the balance of the risks, they just haven't produced that evidence to inspire confidence in what they are asking us to do."
He said Mr Johnson was unlikely to be in serious trouble politically but there is a "general frustration" that MPs were not being treated like grown ups, saying they are “being fobbed off with vague attempts at justification”.
The vote came after the Prime Minister had spent the afternoon trying to win round sceptical backbenchers in Parliament following a speech to open the debate in which he argued there was a "compelling necessity" for the regional tiers.
He said despite the positive effect of the second lockdown on infections people "cannot afford to relax" saying: "We have to be realistic and we have to accept that this vaccine is not here yet, no vaccine is here yet.
"And whilst all the signs are promising and almost every scientist I have talked to agrees that the breakthrough will surely come, we do not yet have one that has gained regulatory approval.
"And we can't be completely sure when the moment will arrive. And until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter."
Among those Tories to vote against were MPs from Kent – which moved after lockdown from Tier 1 to Tier 3 – Tom Tugendhat, Greg Clark, Damian Green, Craig Mackinlay. The former party leader Iain Duncan Smith also voted against.
Defending the measures, which were roundly criticised by his own party for being too severe, Mr Johnson said: "I'm not this afternoon seeking open-ended measures. On the contrary, these regulations come with a sunset clause... at the end of February 2 and at that point... we will have sufficient data to assess our position after Christmas.
"And though I believe these types of restrictions will be needed until the spring, they can only be extended beyond February 2 if this House votes for them."
And he criticised Labour for having "no credible plan" to tackle coronavirus and mockingly accused them of the “heroically” abstaining on the vote, saying: "I do think however it is extraordinary that in spite of the barrage of criticism that we have, we have no credible plan from the party opposite, indeed we have no view on the way ahead.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party could not back the legislation claiming there are "real risks that this plan is incapable of controlling the virus this winter".
He told the Commons the government's policies so far have not worked, but added: "We recognise the need for continued restrictions but it's not in the national interest to vote these restrictions down today and we will allow these restrictions to pass.
"We accept the case for restrictions, we want a plan that's going to work. We're on plan five and this one's full of holes. We have been there so, so many times; the Prime Minister's stood there and said this is the plan, this will solve the problem.
"Fifth time round, still a plan with holes that have been there for months."
There was lots of anger from Mr Johnson’s own side, with a number of former Cabinet ministers attacking the plan, including Andrea Leadsom who said the regulations would "inflict deliberate harm" on her constituency.
Fellow Conservative Steve Baker, one of the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group which has vocally opposed the plans, said: "Here we stand at a profoundly dangerous moment, heading into infringements on our liberties around vaccination and testing which we would never normally tolerate and so therefore I find with huge reluctance, I'm going to have to vote no tonight to send a message to the government.”
And senior MP Sir Bob Neill said he could not support the regulations as they were "disproportionate" and went beyond the evidence, while fellow select committee chair William Wragg added: "Now if these measures are arbitrary and there is no exact science behind them, the sooner that the government would admit that - because at least it would be an honest approach.
"But as it has not done so, I can't support these measures this evening.”
On the Labour side the former shadow justice minister Richard Burgon tweeted he voted against the restrictions as it would “fail to drive the virus down properly while we await a vaccine and the lack of decent sick pay is a disgrace”.
His colleague Toby Perkins said he wouldn’t back it over the support package for the hospitality sector, while Labour former minister Kevan Jones described the government's response to Covid-19 as "arrogant" and “shambolic”.
The MPs who defied Sir Keir were overall a mixture of MPs from the north of England and those in the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group, while former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who now sits as an independent, also voted against the three-tier restrictions.
Summing up the debate health secretary Matt Hancock gave an emotional speech revealing his step-grandfather caught Covid-19 in Liverpool and died on November 18.
Fighting back tears he told MPs: "In my family, as in so many others, we've lost a loving husband, a father, a grandfather to this awful disease.
"So from the bottom of my heart I want to say thank you to everyone in Liverpool for getting this awful virus under control.
"It's down by four-fifths in Liverpool, that's what we can do if we work together in a spirit of common humanity.
“We've got to beat this, we've got to beat it together.”
The minister finished by saying another nationwide lockdown across England "would be the only alternative" to the government's proposed tiers, telling MPs: ”By voting for this motion you are supporting all these people and the public who want to see us act together."
Following the vote Mr Harper said in a statement: “We very much regret that in a moment of national crisis so many of us felt forced to vote against the measures that the government was proposing.
“The House of Commons has spoken and we hope that the government will take on board the comments we have been making on the need for better data and modelling, regional cost-benefit analysis and on trusting MPs with the information they need to make such important decisions on behalf of their constituents.
“We must find a way to break the transmission of the disease, recapture the public’s support and confidence, end this devastating cycle of repeated restrictions and start living in a sustainable way until an effective and safe vaccine is successfully rolled out across the population.”