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Artillery Row

Have Conservative MPs been taken to the limit of their endurance?

The Covid Recovery Group continues to gather momentum – and the prime minister knows it

Why was the prime minister looking so anxious in the hours leading up to Tuesday evening’s Commons vote? With Keir Starmer directing Labour’s 200 MPs to abstain, the 11 Liberal Democrat MPs doing likewise and the SNP not voting on an England-only matter, there was no serious prospect of defeat for the three tier regulations replacing the lockdown. 56 million English men, women and children were not at risk – or liberty – of awaking on the morrow to find they were in a land without tiers.

Yet, the prime minister’s behaviour betrayed a man with a sharp attack of the jitters. Having opened the debate with a speech that never raised itself beyond workman-like, he stayed a short while to listen to the opening contributions, before excusing himself. An urgent call with Ursula von der Leyen perhaps?  It seems not. Instead he shuffled over to the Commons tea room in the hope of making small talk with undecided members of his own party. It is a very long time since he has been seen in that corner of the palace of Westminster.

More desperate was the prime minister’s decision to loiter in the division lobby as the vote was taking place where at least one eyewitness claims he was actively cajoling Conservative MPs into supporting him. There were some desperate times and intimidating, low, behaviour by government whips during the Maastricht rebellion of 1993, but even John Major refrained from behaving quite so abjectly – or at least not in full view of the tellers. In trying to show he is still capo dei capi whilst simultaneously demonstrating his strength is diminished, Boris Johnson has much to learn from Don Corleone.

But just how diminished is the prime minister, or at any rate his government? In the end, Starmer’s abstention – “heroic abstention” as Johnson derisively dubbed it in the debate – was not what saved his bacon. 15 Labour MPs, mostly on the left of the party, ignored their leader and voted with the Tory rebels against the new regulations. Yet, the Ayes had it by 291 to 78, so even had the full 200-strong complement of the PLP done so, the government would still have limped over the line.

Boris Johnson has much to learn from Don Corleone.

What does this further extension of Covid regulation mean for the Tory rebels of the Covid Recovery Group? It is too early to speak of Waterloo, for even on optimistic projections the Covid campaign has many months still to run. Yet if turning the tide of regulation on Tuesday evening would have proved beyond their grasp even had the official Opposition backed them, has the CRG at least suffered its Austerlitz?

Whilst the prime minister seemingly won over some wavers by suggesting he shared their aspiration that their higher tier constituency might move into a lower tier in a fortnight when the data is re-evaluated, this is not a matter that requires a parliamentary vote. In any case, if there are MPs who think there is much chance in a fortnight of the re-evaluation favouring their constituents, they were not listening to what Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said last week. In such matters, his guess is rather more informed than that of the prime minister. The hospitality trade is ruined for this Chrismas period, it is too late to be saved.

Thus Tuesday night’s vote represented the CRG’s last chance this year to defeat regulations which they firmly believe cause economic calamity, produce collateral health and mortality issues and abuse civil liberties on a scale disproportionate to the good they do in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. The new regulations will remain in force until 2 February and it is not until that time that parliament will be consulted on their renewal or replacement.

The inevitable defeat should not bling anyone to the reality that the Covid Recovery Group, led by the former chief whip, Mark Harper, and ERG veteran, Steve Baker, put in an impressive performance on Tuesday. They do not whip tightly, but they do organise well, as evinced by their mid-afternoon expectation of the number of Conservative MPs who would vote with them in the division that evening being almost precisely what was achieved.

It is still quite possible that in February the government will call for a new lockdown on the argument that there must not be any let-up at the last moment when salvation by mass vaccination is on its way. As one of the government’s supporters, Dr Andrew Murrison, warned the Commons, “we need to be very, very careful about having five days of partying over Christmas only to regret it in January” (note how the temporary ability to be in the same living room as your grandma on Christmas Day is now described as “partying” – such has the most human of interactions been debased into something aberrant by the advice of experts and the regulations that implement them). More likely, MPs will be asked in February to approve a continuation of a further modified three tier system.

What even those who supported the government on Tuesday made clear was their unhappiness at low Covid areas being in high tiers because of isolated hotspots elsewhere in the county. The data exists to identify Covid rates on a borough by borough basis. As Tim Loughton pointed out in one of the most effective speeches in the debate, in Germany, lockdowns can be localised down to a single block of flats or a factory. This leaves the rest of the neighbourhood unaffected. By contrast, in England, if Thanet has an outbreak, all of Kent suffers. The appeal was consistent from MPs – if England’s tier system is to continue beyond February then it needs to be far more granular, with truly local measures.

the temporary ability to be in the same living room as your grandma on Christmas Day is now described as “partying”

What if instead of listening, the government carries on in 2021 as it left off in 2020, wielding the sledgehammer? There are difficulties in producing the exact mathematical calculation required for a Tory backbench rebellion to succeed given that MPs representing Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish constituencies may or may not opt to vote on an English devolved matter (for the moment, most do not, although the DUP do). But on the basis of Tuesday’s division, it would have only taken another 14 Conservative MPs who voted with the government to vote against it next time for a rebellion to succeed if Starmer and Ed Davey instructed their MPs to join, rather than abstain from, the insurrection.

Perhaps one of the prime minister’s new year resolutions will be to spend more time – a lot more time – in the Commons tea room. If so, he would do well to spend his time there engaged more in listening than cajoling. His MPs have had enough.

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