Johnson Battles to Stop Rebels Undermining U.K. Virus Strategy

Boris Johnson battled to win support for his coronavirus strategy from lawmakers in his Conservative Party after they threatened to undermine his authority in a vote in the House of Commons scheduled for Tuesday.

The prime minister defended the “tough” rules facing most of England when a national lockdown ends this week, but leading Tory rebels said they will still oppose the plan and lambasted a government analysis of the impact of returning to a tiered regional system of rules Wednesday.

Johnson Battles to Stop Rebels Undermining U.K. Virus Strategy

“I know that lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier and I understand people’s frustration,” the prime minister said in a pooled television interview Monday. “The tiering system is tough, but it’s designed to be tough and to keep it under control.”

The opposition Labour Party said it will abstain in the vote on the new measures on Tuesday, meaning they are expected to be approved, but a big rebellion by Tory MPs would embarrass the premier and highlight his conflict with a growing number of Conservatives over his response to the pandemic. As many as 100 may rebel because they say the new rules are too harsh.

‘National Interest’

It will be the first time Labour has refused to back virus measures and party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of failing to plan for the economic impact of the curbs. He said the party won’t vote against the restrictions because there is a “national interest” in controlling the virus, but it will register its opposition to the broader strategy.

“Boris Johnson’s Government has failed to use this latest lockdown to put a credible health and economic plan in place,” Starmer said in an email. “We still don’t have a functioning testing system, public health messaging is confused, and businesses across the country are crying out for more effective economic support.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged MPs to back the rules to build on the success of the four week lockdown, which he said had got the virus “back under control” and resulted in a 30% fall in the number of cases in the past week.

“It is the best way to avoid a third lockdown, and it is the most proportionate way to take the action that we need to keep people safe,” Hancock told a televised press briefing later Monday. “While we can let up a little, we can’t afford to let up a lot.”

‘Not Possible’

In a bid to calm the potential rebels, ministers published a 48-page document on Monday analyzing the health, economic and social effects of the tiering system. But there was little of the detail demanded by Tory MPs on how the new rules will change the economic picture in comparison to alternative approaches.

“It is not possible to forecast with confidence the precise impact of a specific change to a specific restriction,” the authors said. The document emphasized the consequences of not bearing down on the virus, saying without “tough” measures, transmission would spiral “significantly,” leading to increased death rates that no government “would willingly tolerate.”

Mel Stride, the chairman of the House of Commons Treasury Committee who wrote to Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on Nov. 3 to ask for the analysis, was not impressed. He accused ministers of recycling the forecasts produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility for last week’s Spending Review.

‘Glare of Scrutiny’

“With little over 24 hours until MPs vote on the new tiered system, this rehashed document offers very little further in economic terms other than that which the OBR published last week,” the Tory lawmaker said in a statement. “Those looking for additional economic analysis of the new tiered system will struggle to find it in this document.”

Mark Harper, one of the leaders of Tory opposition to Johnson’s strategy, was more direct. “The wheels are coming off the Government’s arguments,” he wrote on Twitter. The impact assessment “seems to be collapsing under the glare of scrutiny.”

While MPs argued about the latest restrictions in England, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that from Friday pubs and restaurants in Wales will have to close at 6p.m. and will be banned from serving alcohol. Indoor entertainment venues will also have to close to stem the spread of the virus, Drakeford told a news conference.

Ministers hope the prompt roll-out of a vaccine could help a revival of the U.K. economy, particularly the hospitality and entertainment industries which have been battered by restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus. No vaccine has yet been approved but the U.K. regulator is reviewing data from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Johnson said a vaccine could be available “in just a few weeks,” adding: “This could -- and I stress could -- really be the salvation for humanity.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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