Closing time: the Tory brawl over Covid rules

The looming Tory rebellion against the government’s Covid policy

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

‘The mood of the parliamentary party has noticeably worsened in the past five days,’ one senior Conservative backbencher says. He’s not talking about Brexit — these days, the majority of Tory MPs continue to back Boris Johnson’s hardball approach — but about Covid.

No. 10 favours a pre-emption strategy when it comes to the pandemic. They want to clamp down on the virus long before it has a chance to get out of control. ‘Go tight, go early,’ as one Johnson ally puts it. But that approach is triggering considerable resistance among Tory MPs. Broadly, they believe that the government should stick to its previous policy of trying to keep the virus within the capacity of the health service to deal with it. Such an approach wouldn’t have resulted in more restrictions being introduced now. One of Johnson’s most ardent defenders on the backbenches tells me: ‘This is the only policy with legitimacy in the eyes of the Conservative parliamentary party.’ The fights between Johnson and his own MPs will only intensify in the autumn and the winter; some in government think that February will be the most difficult month of all.

Johnson has announced tighter restrictions for two weeks in a row. Last week, it was the rule of six. This week, it was 10 p.m. closing time for pubs and restaurants and the instruction to work from home if possible. Only 13 per cent of the public think these new rules go too far, and Johnson has made it clear that stricter restrictions will follow if the measures do not bring infection rates down.

At the end of last week, Johnson was tempted to impose such a strict new set of rules that some of his parliamentary allies worried it could bring on a wholesale confrontation with his own MPs. In the end, this week’s measures were mild compared to what had been feared. No. 10 is willing to give the new restrictions a short opportunity to prove their efficacy.

The way in which Johnson rolled out this week’s measures shows that he is aware of the souring mood in his party. The ‘rule of six’ was simply announced in a televised press conference. There was no parliamentary statement or debate beforehand, much to the ire of MPs and the -Speaker. Johnson made little effort to square his own party to the changes before announcing them; one secretary of state only learned about the new rules when he was shown the government press notice.

This week, though, things have been different. On Monday evening Johnson met the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers — only his second such meeting since he became Prime Minister — to try to persuade them of the merits of the changes. In that meeting, he stressed that he was a ‘liberty-loving Conservative’ and that he wouldn’t be imposing these restrictions unless they were totally necessary. He then discussed matters with the cabinet before making a parliamentary statement.

Johnson emphasised to the grandees of the ’22 that the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief -scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance were ‘right in the middle’ of the science, ‘not outliers’. Whitty and Vallance offered, he claimed, a route between the scientists who want another national lockdown and those who think no more restrictions are needed.

Whitty and Vallance are crucial to the credibility of the government’s response. This is why their press conference on Monday to present the data was a mistake. Firstly, they took no questions. When public figures don’t want to answer questions, it suggests a weakness in their case. Second, the focus on one scenario — cases doubling every seven days — was inevitably treated as a prediction by the press. That reminded rather too many Tories of the Treasury’s ‘Project Fear’ tactics during the Brexit referendum.

For now, Tory MPs can do little more than grumble. The government’s emergency powers mean that there is no need for votes in parliament on these restrictions. But those powers need to be renewed at the end of this month and that is when grumbles could turn into serious confrontations.

Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, is already planning an amendment to the emergency powers bill that would require a vote before any new national restrictions came into force. Both government whips and the rebels think that more than 40 Tory MPs will back it, wiping out the government’s majority.

No. 10 is trying to find a compromise that will lead to the amendment being dropped, or to support for it draining away. Johnson is already promising more statements and debates, and that MPs will be able to question the government’s scientific advisers more frequently. (There is also a chance that the amendment may not be called for procedural reasons.) Most of the rebels, though, are adamant that there must be a return to votes in parliament on these matters. They argue that with the Commons sitting, and a system of remote voting available if necessary, parliament must have a say before the law changes.

One cabinet minister better -connected than most to the parliamentary party warns that rebellions are particularly dangerous when MPs can convince themselves they are standing up for the House of -Commons rather than opposing the government. Indeed, even ministers think that some of the mistakes of the past few months wouldn’t have happened if the Commons hadn’t been so neutered. ‘There is a discipline to being held to account by parliament,’ says one.

Votes would pose a danger for No. 10. There would, inevitably, be Tory rebels — and voting against the government tends to be habit-forming. Keir Starmer would also have the opportunity to present himself as a responsible leader of the opposition by supporting a Prime Minister who has lost control of his own party regarding Covid. It is not hard to imagine circumstances in which more than 40 Tory MPs might bridle at, say, a temporary shutdown of hospitality. At this point, Starmer could tell the Prime Minister to bring the measure forward anyway, as Labour would support it. Johnson won’t need reminding of the damage that can cause to a prime minister. David Cameron, during his first PMQs as Tory leader, offered to support Tony Blair’s school reforms, telling him that he didn’t need to water them down to gain Labour support because the Tories would be with him in the division lobbies. The offer simultaneously made Cameron look statesmanlike and also drove a wedge between Blair and his own side. If parliament ends up voting on every Covid measure, Starmer would have plenty of opportunities to pull off that trick.

It is not only Starmer that Johnson has to worry about. There is speculation about a new party being set up on the right of British politics. Nigel Farage is coming out strongly against the government’s response to Covid; attacking it from a beef-and-liberty perspective. There is undoubtedly growing concern on the libertarian side of politics about the threat to both personal and economic freedom. A new party positioned to oppose the government’s restrictions would certainly have no trouble raising funds and recruiting high-profile supporters. ‘If Farage sets up a “Freedom party”, we’re right back to the split conservative vote we had before -Brexit,’ warns a senior Tory.

Then there is the Swedish issue. Sweden has taken a very different approach to the virus to most western countries, avoiding lockdown entirely and relying far less on state regulation. In the first wave of the pandemic, this approach clearly had practical problems: Sweden was hit much harder than its neighbours Norway and Denmark. This autumn, however, the Swedish model looks much more appealing. There is not a second spike so far, thus no new restrictions. Tory MPs are increasingly wondering why we can’t be more like Sweden. No. 10 knows this is a problem — Anders Tegnell, the architect of the Swedish approach, was even patched into their discussions on Sunday in an attempt to see what could be learnt from that country’s approach. In private, No. 10 argues that the Swedish approach has worked because of far greater levels of compliance there. But the problem is that making that argument publicly sounds dangerously like blaming the voters for the current increase in infections.

How can Johnson fix relations with his party? There are two possible approaches. Some in his circle think it is time to assert control. ‘You either take a stand or you end up in Mrs May’s territory,’ says one source. The worry is that if the government constantly tacks to avoid parliamentary splits, it will end up being unable to operate. Johnson’s decision to remove the whip from Tory rebels in the last parliament put an end to the Brexit arguments that had paralysed the party ever since the 2017 election, but the risk with that kind of approach is that it could simply increase resentment among rebellious Tories. The other option is a more inclusive form of leadership. The ‘rule of six’ briefing needlessly irritated ministers. As one weary figure puts it: ‘No. 10 think we’re all out to get them, when we’re actually all out to help them.’ One secretary of state laments that two months have passed without a one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister. It is all a far cry from Johnson telling Tory MPs during the leadership contest that one of his greatest skills was delegation and that he intended to appoint a ‘cabinet of giants’.

There are similar problems of neglect with the parliamentary party. Undoubtedly the Covid restrictions have made the usual backslapping more difficult, but No. 10 does need to put more effort into making MPs understand the unenviable choices that the Prime Minister faces.

Less than a year ago, Johnson delivered a large Tory majority, a triumph that only he could have pulled off. It might seem bizarre to hear so much Tory griping so soon after that victory. But as Sir Humphrey Appleby once observed, in politics ‘gratitude is -merely a lively expectation of favours to come’. Johnson must pay more attention to his own MPs if he is to stop a temporary rift from becoming permanent.

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James Forsyth and Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, on the government’s Covid strategy.

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