15 December 2021

Boris’ winter of discontent is only just getting started

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This morning is full of scary numbers for Boris Johnson. Hundreds of thousands of Omicron cases, inflation running at over 5% and last night, an epic Tory rebellion.

On the weekend it was generally reckoned that about 60 Tories would vote against the Government on ‘vaccine passports’/Covid certificates (delete according to taste). As it transpired, nearer 100 of Johnson’s colleagues  found themselves in the rather odd position of voting alongside well-known independent MP Jeremy Corbyn and a few of his hard-left former Labour colleagues.

There was some comfort for the Government, if only in the sense that it didn’t lose a slew of ministers, but the sheer size and breadth of the rebellion is still startling. This was certainly not just a hardcore of committed libertarians in the Steve Baker mould, who have repeatedly voted against extending and enhancing restrictions.

The numbers alone tell that story adequately. Just contrast last night’s 99 Conservative rebels – about half of all Tory backbenchers – to previous votes on the tiers system (53 Tories against) on the 10pm curfew (42) and, earlier this year, on extending the Coronavirus Act for six months (35 rebels). It also bears comparison with historic rebellions such as the 81 who defied David Cameron on an EU referendum, and the 118 Tories who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The bigger worry for Number 10 is that this vote, though narrow in scope, was not just about vaccine passports. There are certainly well rehearsed arguments for why MPs are uneasy about them, arguments I echoed in my recent Weekly Briefing. The phrases ‘slippery slope’ and ‘a bridge too far’ put many of the rebels’ feelings succinctly enough.

As well as a civil liberties argument, there’s also a feeling among some MPs that extra restrictions cannot become the default response to every variant of concern. As former Chief Whip Mark Harper put it, ‘we can’t respond every single time immediately going into emergency mode and shutting down chunks of the economy’.

Nor is it had to imagine that many MPs have taken strongly worded soundings from their own local parties. There’s nothing like the prospect of an internal ‘passport’ or, say, ID cards, to bring out a Conservative’s inner libertarian.

But the rebellion was also a reflection of deeper dissatisfaction at the various foul-ups of recent weeks (a pile to which Shaun Bailey has now added), and, perhaps, a plea to the PM to get back to the bright, optimistic tone on which he built his political brand.

In a narrower tactical sense, it was an example of how once these things reach critical mass, they take on a life of their own. When everyone you talk to in the Tea Room is planning to rebel, it loses the veneer of danger and becomes par for the course. The fact that even the newest MP, Louie French, felt bold enough to vote against the Government was a telling sign of that (though having pledged to vote against during his by-election campaign, he must have felt he had little choice).

Some lefties will be perplexed that ‘Sir Keith’ (ha!) didn’t instruct his own MPs to vote against the Government and ensure a humiliating defeat for the Government. To do so, however, would have been to sacrifice long-term strategy on the altar of short-term tactics.

It would also have been completely inconsistent with Labour’s approach to the pandemic so far, which has either been in lockstep with the Government, or pushing them to go further with restrictions – albeit still not as far as some of the ‘Zero Covid’ fantasists would like.

Keir Starmer’s uncharacteristically shrill claim that the vote means the PM should consider his position may have been little more than Westminster sparring, but even Johnson’s fiercest fans would admit that he has fences to mend, backbenchers to charm and cajole.

The really tricky thing now for the PM, given the size of this backlash, is how he will approach the possibility of further restrictions. With the numbers looking grimmer by the day and Grant Shapps raising the possibility of recalling Parliament over the Christmas break, Johnson’s winter of discontent may have a long way to go yet.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.