Tory Rebellion to Curb U.K. Ministers’ Covid Powers Advances

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A Conservative Party rebellion against Boris Johnson’s emergency coronavirus powers is gaining momentum after opposition parties signaled their support.

The House of Commons plans a vote Wednesday on renewing legislation that allows ministers to impose new rules to combat the pandemic without first seeking parliamentary approval. But a growing band of Tory rebels want to amend the law to put a check on the government’s power.

“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,” the influential Tory backbencher Steve Baker told Sky News on Sunday. He said he’s “certain” the bid will succeed with opposition support.

That Johnson’s majority could be under threat is a measure of the unease within his own party at the ever-changing patchwork of coronavirus rules imposed on different parts of the country. That’s especially so after the pandemic began to spread exponentially this month in the U.K. for the first time since March.

On Sunday, 5,693 new cases and 17 deaths were reported, and the Times reported in its Monday edition that ministers are preparing to enforce a total social lockdown across much of northern Britain, including closing pubs, bars and restaurants.

‘Close Eye’

Health Minister Helen Whately declined to knock back the notion that more restrictions may be in the offing, telling Sky News on Monday only that ministers “don’t want” to bring them in. Speaking later on BBC radio, she said she “wouldn’t rule it out.”

In other developments:

  • An Opinium poll for the Observer put support for the Tories at 39%, trailing Labour on 42% for the first time since Keir Starmer became opposition leader in April
  • The government said more than 10 million people in England and Wales had downloaded the Covid-19 test and trace app released on Thursday
  • From Monday, it’s a legal obligation for people to self-isolate if they test positive or if told to do so by health officials. Law-breakers face fines of as much as 10,000 pounds ($12,800)
  • The government said it aims to amass a four-month stockpile of protective equipment for health workers by November
  • Labour said the economic response to the virus is threatening more than one million jobs in events, the arts and sports
  • New Welsh government restrictions enter force at 6 p.m. on Monday in Neath Port Talbot, Vale of Glamorgan and Torfaen, banning the indoor mixing of households

The Times said the new restrictions could be imposed as soon as this week in Merseyside, northeast England and Lancashire. Households would be banned from mixing, but schools would remain open, as would shops, factories and offices at which staff couldn’t work from home, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile a new requirement for pubs and bars to close early at 10 p.m. came under increasing criticism after crowds poured out onto the streets at the new closing time across the country. Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson tweeted images of crowded roads, saying it showed the policy isn’t working.

At present, ministers can establish new pandemic rules and put them later to a retrospective vote in Parliament. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on Sunday suggested the government still wants the flexibility to set rules without first seeking 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,” Dowden told Sky. “These are very difficult choices we’re making.”

Parliamentary Math

The Coronavirus Act passed in March requires the government to pass a simple motion in the House of Commons after six months, stating “that the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.”

Tory rebels, spearheaded by Graham Brady, chairman of the so-called 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, have proposed an amendment allowing the law to remain only if Parliament “has an opportunity to debate and to vote upon” any major new regulations.

It isn’t clear whether Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, will choose the amendment. The Sunday Telegraph reported that government ministers believe he’ll deem the amendment “out of scope” of the legislation.

But if it does get chosen, its prospects of passing are good. A version of the amendment tweeted by Baker last week had 40 Tory sponsors, and others have since expressed their backing. Johnson’s nominal 78-seat majority translates to an effective majority of 85 because of non-voting Sinn Fein MPs as well as the speaker and his deputies. That means 43 Tory rebels and the opposition members of parliament are needed to defeat him.

On Sunday, Jo Stevens, a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet, told Sky that if the Tory rebel amendment is selected for a vote, “the likelihood is that we would back it.” And Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey told the BBC that 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 as well.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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