Boris Johnson is staring down the prospect of a Tory rebellion over his plans to implement a second national lockdown in England.
Conservative MPs have “blasted the measures”, which come into effect on Thursday, and are warning that the restrictions will “ruin lives”, The Sun reports. By contrast, Keir Starmer has said that Labour will back the harsher rules in order to curb rising Covid-19 infection rates.
But with many Tories proving less amenable, Johnson is being forced to take on his own backbenchers in a Commons clash today.
Senior Conservative Graham Brady is among the Tory MPs lining up to criticise the introduction of the fresh lockdown. Brady told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that it will be “immensely damaging to people’s livelihoods, is deeply depressing and is causing a huge toll in terms of people’s mental health and family relationships”.
The rebel Tory – who chairs the influential 1922 Committee – vowed to vote against the plan, adding that “if these kinds of measures were being taken in any totalitarian country around the world, we would be denouncing it as a form of evil”.
Former cabinet minister Esther McVey has also said that she will vote against the new restrictions. “The ‘lockdown cure’ is causing more harm than Covid,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “The world cannot be put on hold, and the government must stop pressing the pause and stop button for the whole nation on a whim.”
Despite such criticisms, Johnson will today insist that there is “no alternative” to returning the country to a lockdown like that imposed in March – with the exception of keeping schools open this time around.
The prime minister will tell Parliament that without the tough new measures, deaths from coronavirus over the coming winter could be “twice as bad or even worse” than in the first wave.
No. 10 is hoping that Johnson’s Commons statement will “ease unrest” among his backbenchers ahead of a vote on the measures on Wednesday, says ITV News.
According to Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham, the PM will also “personally lead meetings with Tory rebels in Downing Street alongside other senior ministers, scientific advisers and officials” over the coming days, in an effort to win round the skeptics.
The chances of the fresh lockdown laws failing to get through Parliament are very low as long as Starmer continues to support the plan. But Johnson is unlikely to want to rely on Labour to swing the parliamentary arithmetic.
One of the key issues on the table for the Tory doubters is a guarantee of a vote on any extension to the lockdown beyond 2 December, when the current proposed regulations would expire.
However, that could set the stage for another row, with an unnamed cabinet minister telling The Times that the lockdown may not be over until “after the New Year”, as “the rate of transmission is not going to go down enough to justify it”.
The rebels also want a clear exit strategy – echoing demands set out in a letter sent to the PM by the newly formed Northern Research Group last week. The MPs want assurances that a third lockdown won’t be introduced, as well as guarantees that test-and-trace will be functioning properly to avoid further measures.
A Tory politician told Politico’s Wickham on Sunday that “testing looks like it’s in OK shape. But the trace and isolate bits are just as important and they are fucking shit.”
Wickham reports that the rebels want fundamental “changes to how Downing Street operates” too, following a string of U-turns that has seen them being called on to defend policies that are then discarded.
Just two weeks ago, Johnson attacked Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, accusing the Labour leader of wanting to “plunge the whole country back into a damaging lockdown for weeks on end”.
“Why on Earth did they go so hard when they must have known they might end up doing it? It is political suicide,” an unnamed Tory told Politico.
Trouble at home
As well as winning the support of his backbenchers, Johnson will also need to keep an eye on his neighbour on Downing Street, Chancellor Rishi Sunak. A lockdown dove, Sunak has resisted calls for strong restrictions, citing concerns about rising public debt levels, which currently sit at £2.06trn – a 60-year high.
During a cabinet meeting on Saturday, the chancellor “warned colleagues that a second lockdown has thrown the government’s ability to maintain current levels of spending on public services into doubt”, The Telegraph reports.
In what the paper describes as “a clear swipe at Downing Street”, a cabinet source said that Sunak has “now got to fix the mess that they’ve caused”.
Johnson announced on Saturday that the furlough scheme would be extended until 2 December, which he said was an absolute time limit.
But the further spending may see the PM’s noisy, and popular, neighbour drifting further from the man who introduced him to the front benches.