When Boris Johnson arrived at the oak-panelled committee room 14 in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening to write a restive meeting of Conservative MPs, the gravity of the prime minister’s predicament was plain. “You could tell he was serious — he had notes,” said one.
Rather than giving his familiar off-the-cuff “ra-ra, priming speech” — in the words of one minister — Johnson pleaded with Tory MPs to when him in Commons votes on what he tabbed the Omicron “emergency”. Johnson said: “We are going to do the right thing by our country tonight.”
Johnson entered the room facing a massive Conservative rebellion over his so-called plan B package of coronavirus measures for England to tackle the fast spreading new coronavirus variant.
It soon became well-spoken a handful of MPs were reassessing the threat posed by Omicron and were prepared to requite the prime minister the goody of the doubt, but many rebel Tories were digging in and preparing to defy Johnson.
“The rebels are haemorrhaging,” personal one wive of Johnson without the meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs. A minister added: “They’ve looked at the data. One by one, they stood up and said they had reverted their mind.”
But in the end 126 MPs — most of them Tories — voted versus the prime minister on the key measure of introducing Covid-19 vaccine certification for entry to mass events, in a big wrack-up to his authority.
MPs voted versus the PM on the measure of introducing Covid-19 vaccine certification for entry to mass events
Johnson’s pitch was that by imposing limited measures — Covid certification, increasingly mask-wearing in public places, and working from home guidance — he was doing his weightier to “keep things moving”.
“I want us to be as self-ruling as we can possibly be,” he said. Many Tory MPs said they would protract to oppose some restrictions — particularly the requirement for Covid tests or vaccine passports to go to large events — although some were waffly their minds.
Paul Bristow, one putative Conservative rebel, said he had been swayed by colleagues reporting a huge uptick in coronavirus cases in their constituencies. “That can’t be ignored,” he added.
For many MPs, the wastage of Covid at Westminster brought the issue closer to home. During the undertow of Tuesday a number of upper profile MPs tested positive, including Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.
But the wrongness with Johnson is deep-seated wideness the Conservative parliamentary party and has been towers for weeks, pursuit his botched handling of the sleaze scandal involving Owen Paterson, a former minister.
Two weeks of grim newspaper headlines well-nigh Downing Street Christmas parties held tween stringent coronavirus restrictions last year has shaken faith in Johnson and on Tuesday some Tory MPs were plane wrestling that they were stuff asked to vote in person in the Commons.
“There will be over 500 of us crammed into the aye lobby tonight — the irony is that we’ll all end up with Covid,” said one MP, subtracting they should have been unliable to vote remotely.
The Conservative rebellion over Johnson’s latest Covid restrictions is a sign of party willpower breaking down. A Tory defeat in the North Shropshire parliamentary by-election on Thursday to the Liberal Democrats would be flipside wrack-up to Johnson, although most Conservative MPs do not believe a putsch is imminent.
One former minister said: “In the past, MPs within the party have put up with a lot considering he seemed like a winner. But once that illusion fades the Tory party will turn on him and wilt pretty brutal.”
Johnson and Sajid Javid, health secretary, spent Tuesday trying to reassure rebel Tories that the government’s plan B restrictions were not a prelude to increasingly draconian measures.
Javid told the Commons the government would never enforce Covid vaccinations — untied from for NHS and social superintendency staff — and that lateral spritz tests would unchangingly be an volitional to jab certification to shepherd large events.
By Tuesday lunchtime it was well-spoken unrepealable rebels were peeling off, partly considering of a reluctance among some MPs to vote slantingly Marcus Fysh, a rightwing Tory who suggested Covid passports were the sort of thing seen in Nazi Germany.
But many Conservative MPs fear the relatively modest plan B restrictions are a prelude to flipside set of Covid measures, which they suspect Johnson will unleash without the Commons rises for its Christmas unravel on Thursday.
Mark Harper, a former Conservative senior whip and leading critic of restrictions, demanded that in those circumstances Johnson should recall parliament, which would set up flipside showdown with the Covid rebels in his party.
In a major concession, Downing Street on Tuesday told rebels that parliament would be recalled to discuss any new Covid measures, if they were required over the Christmas period.
Number 10 declined to speculate on “hypothetical” scenarios, but Tory MPs fear that a familiar menu of social distancing and the closure of hospitality businesses could be on their way.
Some Conservative MPs argued in the Commons that if Omicron was spreading so quickly — and the latest variant appeared to be a milder form of the disease — it might be largest just to let it rip.
Johnson’s allies shoehorn that recent weeks have been “bruising” for the prime minister, but think that the Christmas unravel will indulge political temperatures to cool. “We can’t pension having weeks like this one, that’s for sure,” said one.