Boris Johnson Hopes Vaccine Will Cure U.K. Tories of the Urge to Rebel
(Bloomberg) -- For U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the roll-out of the western world’s first coronavirus vaccine offers the prospect of some political respite after eight months of criticism over his pandemic strategy.
With the first Pfizer/BioNTech shots due to be administered next week, ministers can see an end to the crisis that has hit the country with a death toll approaching 60,000, caused the deepest recession for 300 years and derailed Johnson’s agenda.
Now his team believes the vaccines will enable life -- and politics -- to begin to return to normal.
“We can see the way out, and we can see that by the spring we are going to be through this,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sky News.
The timing of Wednesday morning’s announcement could not be better for the British leader. On Tuesday night he suffered a revolt by 55 of his own Conservative Party colleagues -- the biggest rebellion in a parliamentary vote since he won a majority at last December’s election.
The scale of the Tory uprising over England’s new pandemic restrictions is a warning to the prime minister that his problems keeping his party onside are growing. Even so, senior members of Johnson’s government privately hope things are about to change, thanks to the arrival of the vaccines.
This year has been a “write off,” according to one minister, speaking privately. “Once we get a bounce from a vaccine that’s when business as usual starts again, and that includes party discipline,” the minister said. Another agreed Johnson’s administration is waiting for the vaccine to change the weather and as long as this happens within a year, the government can turn its troubles around.
In public British ministers are jubilant. Business Secretary Alok Sharma tweeted that the regulator’s decision to approve the Pfizer shot marked “the day the U.K. led humanity’s charge against the disease.”
Rebellions are nothing new at Westminster, but it’s clear Johnson cannot rely on his parliamentary party to back him in the same way as previous prime ministers with big majorities.
“This is something that’s been brewing for the last decade or so,” Alice Lilly, senior researcher with the Institute for Government think tank, said in an interview. Governments with wafer-thin majorities or even minorities, such as under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, mean rank-and-file members of Parliament “have tended to hold the balance of power a lot of the time, and the influence they’ve had has often been greater than it has in the past.”
Part of this is the legacy of Brexit. Like the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, opinions on pandemic strategy cut across party divisions. The Brexit vote split the U.K. neatly in half, and May’s three years in power were defined by a succession of rebellions and historic defeats -- often stoked by Johnson -- over her plans for leaving the EU.
On paper, if the opposition parties had joined Tuesday night’s Tory revolt, Johnson’s majority of 80 would have been wiped out and he would have lost that vital vote. With the prospect of further showdowns on pandemic strategy in the new year, and hard decisions on tax raising or spending cuts in the months ahead, the prime minister’s team knows he needs to do more to get his party back on side.
The risk for Johnson, though, is that the vaccine roll-out stumbles, and Tories unhappy with his leadership see Tuesday’s rebellion as just the start.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.