In Depth

Can Boris Johnson recover from wounds of Tory Covid rebellion?

Total of 55 backbench Conservatives vote against tier system in most serious revolt yet against PM

Boris Johnson suffered the biggest backbench revolt of his leadership last night, when more than 50 Tory MPs voted against the prime minister’s post-lockdown tier system.

With the Keir Starmer whipping Labour to abstain on the vote, there was “no hiding the haemorrhaging taking place on the Tory benches” as the three-tier system was signed off by a margin of 291 to 78, The Telegraph reports. 

While Johnson has got his tier scheme over the line, the size of the Conservative rebellion “demonstrates that the prime minister has a job on his hands to maintain support for the regional restrictions”, Sky News adds.

Jeers for tiers

The tier system came into force for England at 00:01 GMT on Wednesday after the Commons backed the plan. But the “nay” voters included 55 Tories, along with all eight DUP MPs, two independents, including Jeremy Corbyn, and 15 Labour MPs who defied the whip.

And although the abstention of the majority of Labour’s MPs “guaranteed No. 10 victory” despite the Tory revolt, it also left Johnson “exposed to the anger of his own benches”, the Daily Mail says.

Sky News’ chief political correspondent Jon Craig reported that MPs in the chamber had told him Johnson was keenly aware of the damage a significant rebellion would cause. The PM was said to have stood at the door of the “aye” lobby “begging” his MPs to vote with the government.

Walking wounded

 Johnson’s hefty 80-seat majority should theoretically have given him “the kind of comfortable cushion in the Commons that no prime minister had had since the days of Tony Blair”, writes the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Yet events have “hardly gone according to plan”.

The rebellion comes amid growing “suspicions that MPs are not only being taken for fools by Downing Street but also actively undermined”, The Telegraph reports.

Johnson’s decision to back the tiered post-lockdown plan “reinforced the widely-held notion that the PM has been taken prisoner by Sage scientists at the expense of the livelihoods of those who propelled him to power” almost a year ago, the paper adds.

Johnson has already been hit by a series of backbench rebellions, although the latest stand-off is the most damaging by some margin.

Just last month, he faced down a significant revolt over the implementation of a second nationwide lockdown, with 42 Tory MPs voting against a curfew on pubs. The PM also suffered a smaller revolt in September over his controversial Internal Market Bill, with two Tory MPs voting against and a further 30 abstaining.

Trouble ahead

While “no one in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast could claim that handling coronavirus is easy”, last night’s rebellion was a “strong signal that we cannot carry on like this”, says Keunssberg. 

A senior Conservative reportedly told her that “the mood is toxic” in the party - fuelling claims that “relations between the backbenches and Downing Street are getting worse, not better”, Keunssberg adds.

The Covid tiers vote was meant to be the start of a reboot of Johnson’s premiership following the departure of controversial senior adviser Dominic Cummings and No. 10 communications director Lee Cain. 

But as Christmas approaches, the immediate outlook “appears to offer little cheer” for the PM, says The Telegraph.

The scale of the Tory uprising is a “clear warning that the prime minister’s authority has been badly damaged”, agrees Bloomberg. And “it may also be a sign that four years of Brexit turmoil have left British politics permanently scarred”.

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