Boris Johnson suffered a big Conservative rebellion on Tuesday night, as MPs grudgingly voted to put in place the prime minister’s “tiered” system of Covid-19 restrictions in England from Wednesday morning.
Some 53 Tory MPs voted against the plan — the biggest rebellion of this parliament — delivering a serious blow to Mr Johnson’s authority after a year of missteps on coronavirus.
The new three-tier system of restrictions, which replaces England’s national lockdown at 00:01 on Wednesday, is intended to last until the spring. But it was deemed by many Tory MPs to be badly targeted, too draconian and lacking a sound evidence base.
Downing Street welcomed the Commons victory by 291 to 78, claiming the new “winter plan” would “help to safeguard the gains made during the past month and will keep the virus under control”.
Mr Johnson’s victory was assured because Labour abstained, but the 290 Tory votes fell far short of the government’s total. Some 53 Tory MPs voted against the new regime, plus two tellers. That compared with the 34 Tory MPs who voted against the November lockdown and the 42 backbenchers who opposed a 10pm pub curfew in October. At least a further 10 Tory MPs abstained or did not vote, making the rebellion even bigger.
Some 15 Labour MPs and eight DUP MPs also voted against the new system.
Although Mr Johnson succeeded in pushing the three-tier system through the Commons, the lack of Labour support and the scale of the Tory rebellion marks a serious fracturing of political consensus behind measures to tackle the virus, potentially undermining public support.
Mr Johnson spent the day trying to persuade MPs to back his plan, including offering a new £1,000 one-off payment to pubs affected by the toughest curbs — an offer rejected by the hospitality sector as “not even a token gesture”.
The UK prime minister also told MPs that a review of the map of coronavirus restrictions on December 16 would be more “granular”, suggesting that districts with low infection rates might be able to move to a less restrictive tier.
During the day, Mr Johnson cajoled MPs in the Commons tea room and pleaded for their support in the voting lobbies. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, wrote to Tory MPs promising them that restrictions would be more precisely targeted when they are reviewed on December 16.
Many Tory MPs are furious that their constituencies have been placed into tier 3, where pubs and restaurants are forced to close, except for takeaways. In tier 2, they can serve alcohol with “a substantial meal”.
In an attempt to appease his critics, Mr Johnson told the Commons that “wet pubs” — those in tier 2 and tier 3 forced to close because they do not serve food — would receive a one-off £1,000 payment.
“The hospitality industry has borne a disproportionate share of the burden in this crisis, there is no question about it,” Mr Johnson said. But Labour leader Keir Starmer remarked that the offer was “small beer”.
The trade group UKHospitality said restrictions on the sector under the tier system would prompt a drop of £7.8bn in sales compared to last December and that the prime minister’s offer of a £1,000 grant to drinks-focused pubs was “not even a token gesture” as it amounted to just 1.1 per cent of last year’s December sales.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, called the government’s contribution, which totals £40m, “meagre” and “an insult to thousands of pubs across the UK that are on their knees”. The average pub would lose about £47,000 in revenue during December, she added.
One Conservative MP said the government’s offer was “embarrassing”, adding: “They could at least have made it up to £3,000 per pub. We’re coming up to Christmas, for God’s sake.”
Responding to criticisms from Tory MPs, including former business secretary Greg Clark, Mr Johnson also promised that the next round of restrictions on December 16 would allow for local variations.
“We do want to be as granular as possible as we go forward to reflect the reality of the epidemic and the human geography of the epidemic,” he said.
However, Sir Keir said Mr Johnson was not being “level” with Tory MPs or the people by hinting that some places might move down a tier on December 16. “In my view that’s highly unlikely and we might as well face that now,” he added.
Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said: “If the government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary.”
Referring to a government “impact assessment” published on Monday, he said: “There was no serious attempt in that document to provide an answer.”
Mark Harper, leader of the lockdown-sceptic Tory Covid Recovery Group, said: “We very much regret that in a moment of national crisis so many of us felt forced to vote against the measures that the government was proposing.”
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