Boris Johnson is wrong if he thinks this week’s Tory rebellion on the tiered system marks the end of his party management problems. In fact, last night’s rebels tell me that the main purpose of the vote was to increase the likelihood that a good number of areas will be moved down a tier when the current allocations are reviewed on 16 December.
‘If there had just been 20 or 30 of us, the likelihood of getting lots of places moved would have been pretty small,’ explains one senior rebel. ‘But the fact that we surprised them with the strength of support makes it more likely, so those of us who rebelled have done our colleagues a favour.’
The whips did mount an operation yesterday, calling a last-minute meeting between the Prime Minister and the party an hour before the vote, and then stationing Johnson and chief whip Mark Spencer by the door to the ‘aye’ lobby in the Commons, which peeled off a few more MPs. But privately many MPs say they felt their own whip was sympathetic to the rebel case, along with a number of ministers.
There is clearly an attempt underway now from No. 10 to defuse tensions in the party over the revolt last night. Today the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Allegra Stratton insisted that there would be ‘no consequences’ for those who rebelled, adding that ‘the Prime Minister respects them. We get that this was a very, very grave decision for lots of Conservative colleagues, and we respect those who have made a different decision.’ I understand that those around Johnson have also made clear to backbenchers that those who have rebelled will not find that they are overlooked in any forthcoming reshuffle. There is a concerted attempt to show that the new regime in Downing Street isn’t antagonistic or disrespectful of backbenchers.
But none of this will make a great deal of difference if Conservative MPs don’t deem the review on 16 December particularly meaningful, or if activity over Christmas means ministers decide to go for another lockdown in January. As one senior MP says: ‘It becomes much more serious if the Prime Minister’s claim that the vaccine means we can see the sunlit uplands turns out not to be true again.’
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