Tory Rebellion Over U.K. Government Covid Powers Gains Momentum

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A rebellion within Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party over the U.K. government’s emergency Covid-19 powers gathered momentum as opposition parties signaled they will back the move.

Senior figures in both the main opposition Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats indicated on Sunday they’re likely to support any move by the Tory rebels to wrest power for Parliament back from the government if it goes to a vote on Sept. 30. Steve Baker, an influential rank-and-file Tory rebel, said he’s “certain” the bid will succeed with opposition support.

That Johnson’s 78-seat majority could be under threat is a measure of the disquiet within his own party at the ever-changing patchwork of coronavirus rules imposed on different parts of the country, especially after the virus this month began to spread exponentially for the first time since March. Compounding the U.K. premier’s woes, an Opinium poll for the Observer put the Tories behind Labour for the first time since Keir Starmer became opposition leader in April.

“Liberty dies, it dies like this with the government exercising draconian powers without parliamentary scrutiny in advance, undermining the rule of law by having a shifting blanket of rules that no one can understand,” Baker told Sky News on Sunday.

At present, the government can push new rules through and then put them to a later, retrospective vote among members of Parliament.

Opposition Parties

Baker is among dozens of Tories to back an amendment that seeks to give the House of Commons a chance to debate and vote upon changes to coronavirus rules when the government’s pandemic legislation comes up for review this week. The rebel push is spearheaded by Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives.

“We don’t really want a rebellion,” Baker said. “We’re trying to support the government in getting this done by saying let us vote on these measures and support the government, let’s have policy which enjoys our consent.”

Jo Stevens, a member of the main opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, told Sky that while her party prefers its own amendment, if the Tory rebel amendment is selected for a vote, “the likelihood is that we would back it.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey told the BBC that while he doesn’t think the rebel amendment goes far enough, his party’s 11 members of Parliament will “almost certainly” vote for it. Last week, the Scottish National Party -- the third biggest in Parliament -- indicated it’s considering backing the move also.

‘Difficult Choices’

The government on Friday appeared to be in conciliatory mode, with a spokesman for Johnson’s office saying “we continue to work closely with MPs to ensure they are able to hold the government to account.” But on Sunday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden suggested the government still wants the flexibility to act quickly to bring in new rules without first having to get Parliament’s approval.

“It’s important in a crisis like this when things are moving very rapidly that the government has the power to move quickly, and that is the power that the government was given through the initial legislation earlier this year,” Dowden told Sky. “These are very difficult choices we’re making.”

Amid growing concern that university students may be told they can’t go home for Christmas, Dowden declined to rule the prospect out, saying only that the situation could be avoided “if we all pull together and observe these new rules.” Conservative Party Co-Chairman Amanda Milling later put out a statement saying “there are no plans to keep students at university over Christmas.”

Dowden and Milling were responding to Labour calls for the government to ensure students are able to return to their families for Christmas. Labour shadow cabinet member David Lammy told the BBC that the government needs to ensure its track and trace testing regime is in order by then to ensure students can travel across the country.

An Opinium poll for the Observer on Sunday showed public support for the government is waning, with 42% backing Labour and 39% backing the Tories. That contrasts with a 26-point Tory lead in March. Some 36% thought Starmer would make the best prime minister, compared with 32% picking Johnson.

New measures brought in this month include a rule that no more than six people from different households can gather, and the enforced early closure of pubs and restaurants at 10 p.m. Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist who advises the government, told the BBC on Sunday that the effect of early pub closures wasn’t modeled “to my knowledge.”

“Those sorts of things have to be judgment calls based on the public health evidence,” he said. “There isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this,” he said, pointing out that when lockdown was introduced in March, Wuhan in China was the only city in the world had demonstrated it could work.

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