In Depth

Debate: have Boris Johnson’s ‘Big Brother’ coronavirus rules gone too far?

80 Tory rebels to back amendment giving parliament final say on Covid-19 restrictions

Boris Johnson is facing a backbench revolt as his own MPs turn on the prime minister for introducing an array of coronavirus offences without consulting Parliament. 

The new restrictions including penalties of £4,000 for “reckless” refusal to self-isolate, and a ban on pubs playing music too loudly -  “prompting comparisons with George Orwell’s 1984 from leading Tory rebels”, The Times says.

Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 Committee, has the backing of up to 80 Tories for an amendment that would “give Parliament the final say on new coronavirus restrictions”, the newspaper reports. So has Johnson gone too far with his Covid rules?

Locked down and out: the case against restrictions

Brady and his band of Tory rebels argue that Johnson sidestepped parliament with the introduction of new coronavirus restrictions. That allegation has been echoed “by leading constitutional experts, who said that elected representatives had been ‘sidelined’”, according to The Times.

Mark Harper, a former chief whip, yesterday accused the government of ruling “by decree”, while Desmond Swayne, Tory MP for New Forest West, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that backbenchers would decline to renew the Coronavirus Act if they were not given a vote.

Steve Baker, former chair of the European Research Group, likened Johnson to King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings, telling Times Radio that “the king is under the spell of his advisers. And he has to be woken up from that spell.”

The Conservative agitators are not alone in questioning the new offences. The Telegraph’s editorial board argues that Britain has “essentially been governed by fiat for the last few months” and calling for the country to “regain its checks and balances”.

“Britons have already been asked to surrender too many civil liberties,” the newspaper says. “At the very least, these sacrifices should be debated by the elected representatives of the people.”

Meanwhile, Opinium polling that puts Labour ahead of the Tories for the first time since Keir Starmer became leader in April “will sow more doubts among Conservative MPs about Johnson and his teams in No. 10 and the cabinet”, says The Guardian.

Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats have all suggested they will back Brady’s amendment to “rein in Johnson and No. 10”, the paper continues.

If all of the opposition parties support Brady, he would need just 43 Tories to defeat the government.

The new 1984: the case for restrictions

Although claims that Johnson is ruling by diktat are fuelling discontent, much of the anger is over “how coronavirus rules are agreed and imposed”, says The Guardian - not whether they should be imposed at all.

While MPs such as Baker have argued for a reduction in the number of coronavirus restrictions, others including London Mayor Sadiq Khan have argued the government is not going far enough. And coronavirus case numbers are rising. 

Although the number of new cases fell for the second day in a row on Sunday, the tally still marked “a significant increase on last weekend’s figures”, Sky News reports. A total of 5,693 people tested positive for Covid-19 on 27 September, up from 3,899 a week earlier.

On 18 September, Khan said that he was “extremely concerned” by the latest evidence he had seen and was of the “firm view” that action should be taken to control the virus. He added that it looked “increasingly likely that, in London, additional measures will soon be required to slow the spread of the virus”.

Johnson has so far resisted calls for a so-called “circuit breaker” lockdown in either the capital or nationwide, but plans for a social lockdown are understood to have been presented to the cabinet’s Covid-19 Strategy Committee. 

And further restrictions have this week been announced for the Northeast, with the similar measure expected to follow for the Northwest.

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