The number of Conservative backbenchers willing to vote against the Government over Covid-19 policy has increased, is increasing, and shows no sign of being diminished (to adapt the famous words of Dunning’s resolution).
Among the most dedicated opponents of the present restrictions and lockdowns are a small band of Eurosceptics that includes Peter Bone, Philip Davies, and Philip Hollobone – a group once described to this site as “so hardline on Brexit that they make the European Research Group look like sellouts”.
They were the core of the seven Tory MPs who voted against renewing the Coronavirus regulations last week. Graham Brady joined them a few days ago over the rule of six, voting against the Government together with his fellow 1922 Committee Executive members, Charles Walker and William Wragg.
Steve Baker, who is acting as an unofficial whip for potential dissidents over the virus, is poised to join them in the No lobby when the Commons votes on the ten o’clock closing time for pubs and restaurants – as are others. So if the Government doesn’t drop the measure before that debate comes, the number of rebels will be larger still.
In short, there are concretic circles of rebels: some prioritise the economy and freedom; others believe the big lockdowns in the North don’t take account of local factors (see the speeches in yesterday’s debate by Jake Berry, Dehenna Davidson and our columnist Richard Holden).
The next ring out is former Ministers such as Mark Harper, who also pitched in yesterday, plus those who made up the 56 Conservatives who voted for the Brady amendment – a coalition ranging from Damian Green and Bob Neill on to the left to Bernard Jenkin and John Redwood on the right through the permanently discontented in the middle.
The last circle out consists of a fifth column with Government itself that believes the strategy is wrong – or that wants a major overhaul at the least. Some Ministers are part of it. It would be unfair to Rishi Sunak to count him among them, but he is certainly pushing for a less restrictive approach, and is the main force for it within Whitehall.
Not all of those backbenchers support a Swedish solution, or the similar “focused protection” plan, but many of them do, and their numbers will grow – especially in Red Wall seats where lockdowns are presently concentrated – if the Government’s test and track continues to stutter, shutdowns rise, bankruptcies mount and unemployment soars.
Either way, the Parliamentary stage is set for growing pressure for a different policy approach from the Conservative benches. Rebels may be joined in varying number by the minor parties. The SNP contingent at Westminster will operate in the shadow of Nicola Sturgeon’s willingness to intensify lockdowns in Scotland.
But the opposition party that will count most is the biggest one – Labour. Like many Opposition leaders at most times, Keir Starmer is in the classic position, when it comes to debates and votes in Parliament, of being willing to wound but afraid to strike.
On the one hand, Government reverses and defeats on the floor of the House are bad for the Government’s authority and coherence. On the other, pushing for them risks giving Boris Johnson a chance to counter-punch – arguing that the Labour leader is playing politics with people’s lives.
Starmer’s dilemma was vividly illustrated at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, where he attacked Johnson over the ten o’clock rule, and Johnson attacked back – mocking the Labour leader for supporting the rule of six in principle (on the radio) but not doing so in practice (in the lobbies earlier this week).
The strategy that Starmer has settled for overall, and not just on Covid-19, is the classic Opposition one of sitting back, saying little, waiting for the Government to screw up, watching Ministers squabble – and undertaking no manoeuvre that might unite them by presenting them with a target to fire at.
The to-and-fro over the ten o’clock rule proves that he is willing to throw the dice if he thinks that the Government’s ground is especially weak. But there is a more fundamental driver at work. To date, there has been no real pressure from within the Labour Party to oppose lockdowns and restrictions.
The Labour left has tended to be pro-lockdown. And no wonder: restrictions and shutdowns means that capitalism can’t function properly and that statism consequently swells in scope. Nonetheless, six of the party’s backbenchers, including Rebecca Long-Bailey, voted for the Brady amendment, in defiance of their party whip.
Long-Bailey spoke for the civil liberties tradition within Labour; Dawn Butler believes that the restrictions are being “disproportionately used against people of colour”; John Spellar leans towards a Sweden-type policy. The number of these dissenters might have remained very small, were it not for a significant development outside Westminster.
Local Labour leaders in the north could be expected to do what Andy Burnham has been busy doing – namely, to call for more consultation, more powers, and more money, as Harry Phibbs reported on this site yesterday. That’s par for the course for a Labour Mayor co-existing with a Conservative Government.
However, other Labour mayors and council leaders are striking out in a different direction – as, in the absence of mini-lockdowns at a ward or single local authority level because test and trace isn’t delivering them, wider shutdowns range across whole cities or regions.
Some of those Labour leaders and some Tory MPs are converging on a common theme: that shutdowns ignore local variation in Covid-19 case rates, damage livelihoods and deepen poverty. Consider the remarkable statement issued by the Labour leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle city councils.
“We want to be clear however that we do not support further economic lockdowns [our italics]…This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections.”
The potential impact at Westminster of this change of mood in the north is very big indeed. If Labour MPs in urban seats join those local leaders in demanding a more permissive Coronavirus policy, there will be pressure on Starmer to respond.
To be clear: we don’t expect the Commons to force a “focused protection” plan on an unwilling Johnson – at least, any time soon. But we do anticipate Starmer being less afraid to strike, as the weeks go by and winter sets in. Which will ratchet up the pressure on an already rickety and divided Government.
On the one hand, the whips and others will urge concessions, fearing defeats on the floor of the House. On the other, the scientists – or rather those advising Ministers – will urge that Johnson stick to restrictions and shutdowns, warning of hundreds of thousands of deaths (like Matt Hancock).
Our fear is that, rather than strike out in a clear direction, the Commons will lop chunks off Government policy in a random and arbitrary way – as and when Tory rebels plus the Labour front bench finding themselves voting together in an alliance of convenience (or, if you prefer, one of inconvenience).
That would be bad three times over. Bad for the Government. Bad for Covid-19 policy. And above all, bad for the people of Britain, who will have to live with the incoherent consequences of such developments – and the damage to lives and livelihoods that will follow. Keir Starmer, over to you.