Mr Johnson told Tory MPs they will not be disciplined if they rebel in tomorrow’s vote on the new tier system.
After warnings that an army of 70 to 100 Conservative MPs may defy the Government on a three-line whip, Cabinet minister George Eustice made clear that no backbenchers will suffer the most severe punishment as a result. “They won’t be sanctioned in terms of having the whip removed or anything like that,” he said.
The soft approach means the Prime Minister may rely on Labour support to win the critical vote on the return to a three-tier system of curbs, but could help prevent the split in his own party deepening, as happened when John Major stripped the whip from Maastricht rebels in the 1990s.
In further concessions, Mr Eustice confirmed that MPs will be given another parliamentary vote in January, a key demand.
Also, the Government was considering extra financial help for beleaguered pubs and restaurants, and was expected to publish an “impact assessment” designed to reassure MPs that curbs like the closure of businesses would do more good than harm.
But Mr Johnson was warned this morning he is in “not a good place” if he needs Labour support to win the vote. Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans told LBC Radio: “When you have got a lot of discontent within your own party, even if Keir was to come and support the measures on Tuesday, then it’s not a good place to be.”
Tory MP Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group which wants an easing of restrictions, gave a guarded welcome to promises of more support for the hospitality sector.
He said: “We look forward to seeing the detail… along with the cost-benefit analysis we’ve been asking for. I am particularly concerned about some of the non-Covid health implications these restrictions have been having. This needs to be published as soon as practically possible, so that MPs have a chance to digest it ahead of tomorrow’s vote.”
Mr Eustice would not rule out another lockdown in the New Year if case numbers escalated. “I don’t think it will be necessary to go back into another full lockdown, but you can’t really rule anything out,” he told Sky News.
- A major study found coronavirus infections fell by almost a third in England during the second national lockdown. A 30 per cent drop in cases occurred across the country over almost a fortnight, Imperial College London’s React research showed.
- The Government admitted that the Covid-19 crisis will not be over until “early summer” when better weather and the vaccine should combine to end the pandemic.
- Confusion over the rules increased when Mr Eustice suggested having a Scotch egg was a “substantial meal” that could be enjoyed with a drink in a pub.
- The Health Department is looking for “sensible celebrities” to front a campaign to improve take-up of the Covid-19 vaccine, ministers confirmed. Politicians will not be as prominent in the campaign, it emerged.
- Sunday trading restrictions may be relaxed to increase shopping hours, the Government said. No decision has been taken on reported moves to allow shopping almost 24 hours a day to reduce overcrowding in the run-up to Christmas.
In a speech tonight, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee that represents Tory backbenchers, will say: “Although freedom is not absolute, policy should always be formed in a way that presumes as much freedom as possible, only taking liberty away when there is no realistic alternative.”
Mr Eustice described the whipping of the vote as “a strong advisory guide to the party line” rather than an order. Speaking to Times Radio, he added: “There are plenty of examples in the past of people who don’t always follow a whipped vote.”
Senior rebel MP Damian Green said: “That’s helpful, but I am still waiting to see the evidence for the Government’s position.”