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This Tory tiers rebellion is one time Boris Johnson can’t have his cake and eat it

Andrew Grice
·4-min read
<p>The prime minister portrays himself as an instinctive fellow libertarian who sympathises with his Tory critics</p> (PA)

The prime minister portrays himself as an instinctive fellow libertarian who sympathises with his Tory critics

(PA)

Another week, another Conservative rebellion. Boris Johnson is struggling to contain a revolt by many Tory backbenchers against the new system of coronavirus restrictions that will replace the four-week lockdown in England on Wednesday.

The outcome of tomorrow’s Commons vote is not in doubt: the tough new regime, with virtually 99 per cent of England in the highest two of three tiers, will be approved because Labour will not vote against the rules. It will probably support them on the grounds that is “the responsible thing” to do. Even if Labour abstained, that would save Johnson from a humiliating defeat.

Ideally, Johnson would much rather keep the revolt below 40 Tories so he does not need to grab Keir Starmer’s lifeline. His problem is that about 100 Tory backbenchers are disgruntled. A total of 55 have voted against previous coronavirus rules; on paper, a 70-strong revolt is possible.

Having to rely on Labour would only fuel Tory talk in the Commons tea rooms about how long Johnson will last as prime minister. The end won’t come anytime soon but such chatter is ominous less than a year after he won a stonking majority of 80.

So Johnson, ministers and Tory whips are working overtime to contain the latest mutiny. The tough cops, such as Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, warn of a third wave and third lockdown in England if the new rules are not approved.

The soft cops, led by Johnson himself, plead for party unity and, over a wobbly weekend, offered concessions, including a review of the rules on 16 December, when he will be keen to symbolically move a few areas from tier 3 to tier 2 to show the system is not set in stone. Another review will be held on 13 January, followed by another Commons vote on 27 January before the regulations formally expire on 3 February.

But some Tory MPs are not impressed, suspecting it will be very hard to “move down the tiers” before Easter on 4 April. Privately, ministers agree that some restrictions will probably be needed until the early summer while the vaccination programme reaches enough of the population. Scientists are worried that the period between now and Christmas, as well the five-day relaxation over the festive period, might see a rise infections, wiping out a recent fall. Ministers have long feared that February would be “the cruellest month,” since the virus might coincide with flu and NHS winter pressures.

Some Tories will probably abstain tomorrow rather than vote against the rules, knowing that they cannot block them. But they are trying to use their bargaining power ahead of the vote to extract more concessions. They want and will likely secure more financial help for businesses in tiers 2 and 3, particularly for those in the hospitality sector which will be denied a vital Christmas boost.

Another possible sweetener is a clearer route map for how areas can move from tier 3 to tier 2 and then tier 1. Johnson’s Tory critics are keen to show they are championing their constituencies to limit the damage to local businesses. They want to end the system of tiers based on counties, pointing out that this leads to anomalies such as Kent, where towns with some of the lowest infection rates in the country are stuck in tier 3.

Some potential rebels will make up their minds on how to vote tomorrow after digesting the government assessment of the new blueprint’s health, economic and social effects, which the MPs have long demanded. Ministers hope this will allay the backbenchers’ fears that the clampdown will “do more harm than good”. Some soft rebels, especially those keen to get a foot on the ministerial ladder, might use this study as cover to come out in support of the government. But for many, the assessment is unlikely to tip the scales.

The prime minister portrays himself as an instinctive fellow libertarian who sympathises with his Tory critics. It’s probably true that, if he were a backbencher, he would be railing against the nanny state controls in columns for The Daily Telegraph. If he could, Johnson would put his name to a protest letter from the rebels and send it to… himself.

However, this is one time when he can’t have his cake and eat it. Like Labour, he must do the responsible thing.

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