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LBC views: Extending Covid lockdown powers could be a disease in itself
3 September 2021, 17:25
Fresh from the debacle over Afghanistan, the Prime Minister is facing a significant fight with his own backbenchers over the Government’s apparent decision to press ahead with an extension of Covid laws.
Amid fears we could see a surge in the number of hospitalisations, and subsequent deaths, from the virus this winter, Number 10 and the Department for Health and Social Care will look in the next couple of weeks to extend the powers available to the State to close shops and pubs, and allows the police to force anyone presenting with the disease to self-isolate.
The last time ministers sought a six-month extension back in March, 30 Conservative MPs rebelled.
This time, according to one of the rebels, the number is looking like 40, and they are more willing to take a hardline approach with the whips, arguing that with the vaccine we are never going to hit the daily death toll of lockdowns one and three, when more than 1,200 people were losing their lives each day.
The other factor in this looming stand-off is the timing. Firstly, Parliament is back in full swing. We’re no longer going to see a sparse chamber of 50 or so MPs. That makes it easier to co-ordinate rebellions.
Secondly, the first Conservative Party Conference in two years is just around the corner. Whilst many members of the Tory party are very grateful for their vaccines, conference season offers a platform for Tory MPs angry at the Government to cause a public row that will be less than welcome in Number 10.
And thirdly, there are potentially bigger battles to be fought, namely the decision to scrap the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, and the thorny questions about tax rises, and broken manifesto commitments, to pay for social care, and that’s before the triple lock on pensions is abandoned, as is likely.
Having said all of that, a victory for the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative lockdown sceptics in the parliamentary vote depends entirely on what Labour does. Having voted with the Government on every lockdown measure passed by this Government, it is doubtful that Sir Keir Starmer will break the habit of his lifetime as Labour leader.
Indeed, Labour sources have indicated to me that because it is a straight up and down vote on all the measures in one vote, rather than allowing opposition parties to make a pick-and-mix selection of what they like and don’t like, that Labour will vote with Boris Johnson once again, preventing any attempt by the CRG to inflict defeat on the Government.
In truth, ministers will probably seek to find some sort of compromise with their rebellious colleagues, ditching many of the powers it has used in the last 18 months, and keeping only those it thinks it will really need over the course of the coming winter. But whatever the solution this is not a headache the Government needs right now.