Rebel Tories have struck a significant blow to Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy as 34 Conservatives voted against new lockdown measures in England.
In a move that would have threatened the prime minister’s majority if he had not had Labour’s support, senior Tories including Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith tore into the government’s strategy.
They questioned why the regional tiered system had not been given longer to work, pointing to data showing infections falling in Liverpool since it entered tier 3.
Despite this, the four-week lockdown passed by 516-38 after it was backed by opposition parties, and it will come into force on Thursday.
May, who abstained on the vote, was among those voicing deep scepticism about the second lockdown. Johnson’s predecessor echoed calls for the government to publish new data on the economic and health costs of the restrictions.
In a final attempt to quell a substantial revolt, Johnson had urged rebels in the Conservative party to “put differences aside”. But May said a rolling series of lockdowns would cause “irreparable damage” to the economy and have a “significant impact on lives”, while the localised tier system had not been given adequate time to work. “The evidence is, from Liverpool, that cases are falling … across the age ranges,” she said.
Duncan Smith said the data used to put England into lockdown had “subsequently unravelled in the last few days”, also pointing to case numbers in Liverpool. He said he would not vote for the government’s plan, saying he believed the leak of the lockdown on Friday had “bounced the government” into announcing the measures.
Scientists believe the R number is still above 1 in most parts of the country, meaning that if infection rates are slowing in Liverpool and other areas in tier 3, it would not be enough to avoid a prolonged second wave and excess deaths.
Speaking earlier in the debate, Johnson vowed that the lockdown would end on 2 December and that ministers would seek a “fresh mandate” on what came next.
“It is right for members on all sides of this house to have the doubts that have been expressed, to seek answers from me, and to provide scrutiny,” Johnson said. “But while it pains me to call for such restrictions on lives, liberty, and business, I have no doubt that these restrictions represent the best and safest path for our country, our people and our economy.”
Johnson did not remain in the Commons for May’s speech, causing cries of outrage from the opposition benches. But he told MPs earlier: “I know there are many in this house who are concerned about how long these measures might last, and that if people vote for these regulations today, they could suddenly find that they’re trapped with these national measures for months on end.
“So let me level with the house. Of course I can’t say exactly where the epidemiology will be by 2 December, but what I can say is that the national measures that I hope the house will vote on tonight are time-limited. It is not that we choose to stop them. They legally expire. So whatever we do from 2 December will require a fresh mandate and a fresh vote from this house.”
Johnson reiterated that the NHS being overwhelmed could have disastrous consequences. “It means that the precious principle of care for everyone who needs it, whoever they are, whenever they need it, that principle can be shattered for the first time in our experience,” he said. “It means those who are sick and suffering and in need of help could be turned away because there was no room in our hospitals.”
Whips were expecting a moderate rebellion of between 20 and 30 MPs, with key Tory rebels including the former chief whip Mark Harper, the former cabinet minister Esther McVey and the chair and vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady and Sir Charles Walker.
Harper said he was concerned about the modelling of the rapid rise of infections, saying it did not take into account the new tiered system. “I think therefore we’ve acted too soon, because we’re starting to see the tier system working,” he said.
Brady said he would vote against the government “with greater conviction than I have in casting any vote in those 23 years [as an MP].” He added: “I think there is an, unintended perhaps, arrogance in assuming the government has the right … to tell people whether they can visit their elderly parents in a care home, whether it has the right to tell parents they can’t see their children or grandchildren, whether it has any right – for heaven’s sake – to tell consenting adults with whom they are allowed to sleep.”
The former minister Steve Baker also said he would vote against the measures “with a heavy heart” because of doubts about the data that was presented to MPs. He said the UK must “improve standards in government so that never again do we see a model like this, which evaporates like morning mist under the sunlight of close inspection”.
However, he said there was a crucial need for compliance with the new rules, in a dig at the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings who broke the last lockdown’s rules. “No more innovative eye tests,” Baker said.