Boris Johnson may have breathed a sigh of relief when he survived last month’s Commons vote to approve lockdown 2.0 with 34 Tory rebels lining up against him – but there was a sense it represented the calm before the storm.
Speaking a day after the showdown on 4 November, former Tory minister Steve Baker – a ringleader of lockdown sceptics on the backbenches, who said he had consciously taken his foot off the pedal at the time – made his feelings clear.
“I will organise against further lockdown after this. This was the one time that I not merely stepped back but positively helped the government to make their case because it’s very serious. But next time round I will give all of my strength and courage to organising the maximum vote against further lockdown,” he told the Guardian.
Baker, it seems, has been true to his word. The following week, he was announced as deputy chairman of the new anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), with the former Tory chief whip, Mark Harper, in charge.
And behind the scenes the rebellious group has been organising and professionalising.
Swelling from 50 to 70 Tory MPs, it has enlisted former Tory parliamentary candidate Ed Barker to run its press relations operation. Efforts on social media also appear to also be tightly coordinated, with members using the #Road2Recovery hashtag on Twitter when issuing supportive messages.
The CRG has been described as an echo of the European Research Group (ERG), which, with Baker as its chair, helped shape Brexit policy from the backbenches during Theresa May’s turbulent time in No 10.
Familiar faces made up the CRG’s steering group, including Sir Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbenchers. But the group has attracted the support of a wider ideological pool of Tories, beyond the ERG’s Eurosceptic makeup.
Harriett Baldwin, who supported remain during the EU referendum, was named on the steering group. Kent Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, who backed remain, is also a supporter.
Key among the group’s “three guiding principles” was a call for the government to undertake and publish a full cost-benefit analysis of coronavirus restrictions. It also urged No 10 to “end the monopoly on advice of government scientists” and improve existing measures to tackle the virus, such as the performance of test and trace. They set out a raft of concerns in a letter to the prime minister on 21 November.
As the clamour grew, Johnson held a Zoom meeting with Harper and Baker last Tuesday to listen to those concerns.
In a last-ditch effort to appease the group’s membership, Johnson wrote to them this weekend setting out a series of concessions, including committing to publication of further analysis of the health, economic and social impacts of Covid restrictions.
But when it came on Monday it fell far short of expectations. The 48-page report highlighted the government’s view that letting the NHS be overwhelmed would be “intolerable for our society” but concluded it was not possible to know whether the economic impact of the new strengthened tiers system would be greater than doing nothing.
Harper, frustrated by the rushed publication of the document just 24 hours before Tuesday’s vote on restrictions, was unrelenting in his criticism. “Even with so little time, the government’s analysis seems to be collapsing under the glare of scrutiny,” he declared on Monday, adding: “We are now seeing that, once again, the wheels are coming off the government’s arguments.”
With the prime minister watching on, Brady told parliament on Tuesday that the government had to “demonstrate beyond question” that it was acting in a way that was both proportionate and absolutely necessary if it was to remove people’s fundamental liberties. It had, he concluded, failed to do so.
While Tuesday’s vote is expected to pass despite the rebellion, the question for the prime minister is: what will the CRG do next?