When Boris Johnson addressed his party this week on a Zoom call, it had all the makings of a horror show. The prime minister had, the day before, announced a third national lockdown for England – an action he had once likened to a nuclear deterrent and one that his lockdown-sceptic backbenchers had previously said would lead to a huge three-figure rebellion.
Over the past six months, Johnson’s relationship with his party has come under severe strain over the Covid restrictions, which are opposed by the Conservatives’ libertarian wing. At the last lockdown, in November, he was accused by MPs of pushing the UK closer to an “authoritarian coercive state” as well as failing to live up to his supposed Churchillian values.
Yet on this week’s 45-minute call something unusual happened. Not a single Tory MP used the Q&A session to quibble with the proposed seven-week lockdown, which will be nearly as strict as the one imposed last March. Instead, the questions were focused on whether it could run longer without parliamentary consultation, the vaccine rollout, and mitigating the consequences of shutting schools.
“It was a different world compared to how these sessions went a few months back,” says one attendee on the call.
The conventional wisdom in November was that rebellions on the issue – already big enough to demolish the prime minister’s majority of 80 – would only grow in size. But ahead of last night’s vote, aides in No 10 were the most relaxed over the numbers they have been for some time.
A combination of factors, from the vaccine to new insight on the spread of the virus, has led to a step-change in how Tory MPs view lockdown measures. While there’s still no love for the restrictions, there is a sense that this time around they could be necessary.
“Don’t expect many speeches on freedom in the coming weeks,” one Conservative MP tells me. In a pandemic when a million people are infected, there are fewer diehard libertarians.
The vaccine had not initially been enough to convince party backbenchers that hard suppression was the right approach. The new variant has changed that.
“The data that is coming in is hard to argue with,” says a minister. While in the past, meetings of cabinet ministers featured debates between the lockdown hawks and doves over the severity of restrictions, this has now changed. In the Covid-O meeting on Monday and the subsequent conference call with MPs, there was unity.
The figures comparing now to where we were in March were seen as particularly alarming. Those who have pushed for strict measures from the beginning are keen to point out that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak – formerly seen as the chief anti-lockdown hawk – has been comparatively quiet of late.
This change is reflected, too, in the parliamentary party. While there are still MPs opposed to the new lockdown they are, according to one colleague, the “hardliners”. And even they admit they don’t have the numbers to bring about any change in policy.
Those MPs who support restrictions have often been the quieter section of the Tory party. But they have grown louder in recent weeks. Neil O’Brien has become a vocal critic of those dismissive of Covid, taking his party colleagues to task on social media. While that’s gone down badly with some Tories, few are in the mood for a Twitter spat.
“The pragmatists can see that the situation has changed and that means our position has to as well,” says an MP who voted against the second lockdown. Others put it more bluntly. “We’re not headbangers,” one explains. “The data in the past has been dubious but this time things do appear different and there’s also a vaccine route out of indefinite lockdowns.”
It’s for these reasons that the anti-lockdown MPs are in large part turning their attention to the next battle rather than fighting the old one. Their new priority is to make sure their voice is heard in the upcoming debate on when restrictions should end.
Mark Harper – the chair of the Covid Recovery Group – has issued a call for the government to start relaxing restrictions next month. The questions over Zoom to Johnson from this group focused on what the UK could learn from Israel’s fast rollout, and when two vaccinated people can meet.
Lockdown-sceptic Tories view the prime minister’s commitment to publish daily vaccine numbers as a way to keep his feet close to the fire on his mid-February vaccination pledge for the most vulnerable groups. Their hope is that granular data on those receiving it will allow informed interventions that No 10 will find hard to ignore.
However, in government the most imminent concern is to protect hospitals over what one minister describes as “scary” numbers of patients in the coming weeks. There’s a sense that there can be no early freedom until that pressure has passed – and there is no sense yet of when it will. This is where the friction will come.
The lockdown sceptics are also keen for a roadmap to ditch all restrictions in the coming months rather than a gradual relaxation with no clear endpoint. However, in yesterday’s Commons debate on the lockdown, Johnson said there would be no “big bang” moment – he is reluctant to set any firm date for the freedom his party craves. No 10 is also braced for warnings from scientists over the risks to the non-vulnerable from lifting restrictions.
It’s this argument that the lockdown sceptics are looking ahead to. Fight the third lockdown? No. For them the real debate is how many need to be vaccinated before all restrictions go.