Analysis: Tory rebellion over Covid restrictions is political gold-dust for Labour

13 December 2021, 21:31 | Updated: 14 December 2021, 17:35

The Prime Minister looks certain to be hit by the biggest Tory rebellion in a House of Commons vote since he became Conservative leader
The Prime Minister looks certain to be hit by the biggest Tory rebellion in a House of Commons vote since he became Conservative leader. Picture: Alamy

By Ben Kentish

Boris Johnson’s torrid end to the year is set to get even worse on Tuesday night, when the Prime Minister looks certain to be hit by the biggest Tory rebellion in a House of Commons vote since he became Conservative leader.

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As many as 80 of his own MPs are likely to vote against some elements of the government’s so-called Plan B for tackling Covid this winter.

That is well over a fifth of all Conservative MPs.

Even if some can be convinced to step into line, it is still likely to be the biggest rebellion against the government that we have seen for several years.

Ministers have cannily divided the vote on Plan B into three parts, rather than package all of the changes together.

They hope this will allow the less contentious Plan B measures to be approved by the Commons without much drama.

These changes relate to letting double-jabbed people who come into contact with a confirmed Covid case do daily tests for a week instead of isolating, and introducing mandatory face coverings in more settings.

Read more: Starmer: Labour will vote for Plan B as it's 'our patriotic duty'

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It is the third part of the plan – the introduction of Covid certificates – that is by far the most controversial.

The government wants to mandate that only people who are double jabbed should be allowed to enter nightclubs and large events, although it has made a major concession by allowing a negative test result to be shown as an alternative.

Many Tories are vehemently opposed to the policy.

Some cite libertarian concerns about fundamental freedoms, while others question what science the change is based on given that early data suggests two doses of vaccine (particularly AstraZeneca’s) are barely effective at stopping people getting, and therefore spreading, the Omicron variant.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s confirmation that Covid certificates will, in time, require three vaccine doses makes much more sense scientifically but will further anger MPs who see this as mandatory vaccination being brought in by the back door. 

All of this is political gold-dust for Labour.

Read more: Huge demand for Covid boosters as all adults in England become eligible

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Tomorrow’s vote gives Keir Starmer the opportunity to inflict a humiliating defeat on the government.

Had he ordered his MPs to join with Tory rebels and oppose Plan B, the changes would likely have been voted down.

It is a trap he has sensibly avoided.

It would be ludicrous for Labour to vote against the restrictions that it has been calling for weeks, and which are strongly supported by UK scientific advisers.

Such politicking would leave Starmer open to the attack that he was playing Westminster games with people’s lives.

By instead deciding to support the government tomorrow, he can say that he is acting in the national interest while also pointing out that Johnson is relying on Labour votes to get his plans through Parliament.

That in itself is an opportunity for Starmer.

Read more: Covid-19: Where can I order a lateral flow test?

Read more: Covid passes: Health Secretary confirms three jabs will be needed to be 'fully vaccinated'

Expect lots of messaging from Labour this week alleging that the Prime Minister is weak and unable to even convince his own party to support him.

As well as Johnson, another man feeling the heat ahead of the Plan B vote is Mark Spencer, the government Chief Whip, who is already under huge pressure following his role in strong-arming Tory MPs into voting for a motion that could have let former minister Owen Paterson off the hook despite serious sleaze allegations.

It has been clear in recent weeks that the government whipping operation is woefully unable to quell consistent and significant dissent from backbenchers.

A rebellion bigger than any since Boris Johnson became leader could be the final nail in the coffin of Spencer’s Cabinet career.

But this is about much more than Westminster power games; the implications of tomorrow’s vote for all of us are profound.

If Johnson now needs Labour’s support to implement vital Covid restrictions, then what happens in future if Labour decides it doesn’t like what the government is proposing?

Read more: At least one person has died with Omicron, PM confirms

Read more: Health Sec warns some NHS appointments will be dropped to meet tough new booster target

Given the rate at which Omicron is spreading, it is very possible that even more restrictions will be needed in the coming weeks – possibly even before Christmas.

However, it is no longer guaranteed that the government has the ability to get such measures through Parliament.

That could have major implications for all of us, for the NHS and for public health.

Equally significant is what the Plan B vote says about Conservative MPs’ opinions of Boris Johnson.

The list of Tory rebels who have already said they will defy party orders tomorrow includes many who are not typical troublemakers, some of whom will be rebelling for the first time.

This is perhaps the clearest sign yet of the loss of trust, authority and goodwill blighting the Prime Minister when it comes to his own MPs.

Weeks of anger, despair and outrage among Conservatives over sleaze, sewage and parties in Downing Street mean Johnson’s standing with his party is at a new low.

The PM’s team is already concerned about mutinous Tory MPs, mounting discontent and murmurings about possible successors. They will surely be even more worried after tomorrow’s vote.