Boris Johnson Faces His Biggest Tory Rebellion Over Covid Curbs
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson is facing the biggest rebellion of his two-year premiership, as members of Parliament prepare to vote on his strategy to tackle the new omicron Covid-19 strain spreading rapidly in the U.K.
Rebel Conservative MP Steve Baker has said he expects about 60 colleagues to vote against the government, while the Spectator magazine has tallied more than 80. Either would be a humiliation for Johnson, especially if it emerges that he relied on opposition Labour Party support to pass the measures.
The rules to be voted on after 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday include mandatory face coverings in some public indoor spaces and so-called Covid passes -- proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test -- to enter nightclubs and other venues.
“Omicron is a grave threat,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament as he urged MPs to back the new measures. “When infections are rising so quickly, we’re likely to see a substantial rise in hospitalizations before any measure is starting to have an impact. So there really is no time to lose.”
Many Tories are angry about new restrictions on civil liberties, and also question the level of threat posed by omicron. Under the plans, business face being forced to close if they fail to comply with rules to demand Covid passes, while a fake pass could result in a fine of 10,000 pounds ($13,250).
|Changes to England Covid Rules:|
The votes also come with many MPs already frustrated at some of Johnson’s self-inflicted errors that have damaged the party in recent weeks.
What began with his mishandling of an ethics probe morphed into a major public relations crisis over allegations his staff held Christmas parties against pandemic rules last year. Amid the turmoil, the Tories have slumped in the polls, handing a lead to Keir Starmer’s Labour in many surveys.
Covid restrictions have proved fertile ground for Tory rebellions in the past, including in December last year when 55 MPs voted against a new Covid-19 tier system for England -- the biggest revolt against Johnson’s government so far.
A significant risk for Johnson is that Tuesday’s votes further dent his standing at such a sensitive time. But there are also potential implications for the government’s ability to tackle the pandemic.
Scientists have warned that the government’s reliance on an accelerated inoculation program, combined with the relatively light curbs MPs are voting on Tuesday, will not prevent hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
The BMA, which represents U.K. doctors, wants tougher measures immediately including requiring face coverings to be worn in all hospitality settings and limits on numbers for indoor gatherings.
While ministers have said there is no plan to go further than the restrictions to be voted on in Parliament, the question is what happens if the virus forces Johnson’s hand. Though he doesn’t need parliamentary approval to do so, in reality it will be harder if his authority is significantly damaged on Tuesday.
Determining the scale of the damage will be difficult because Labour has already said it will vote for the new rules. That gives Tory MPs license to rebel without inflicting a defeat on the government, according to Philip Cowley, professor of political science and author of a book on parliamentary rebellions.
“The bigger problem for the government is how this then affects party management,” Cowley said. Johnson’s majority of about 80 is “big, but it’s not so big that a decent-sized rebellion wouldn’t cancel it out.”
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