Esther McVey and Jake Berry. Peter Summers/Getty Images

The Conservative party’s autumn of discontent

It is a bad sign when Tory MPs say they will vote for their government with “a heavy heart”

Artillery Row

Yesterday, the government faced down three separate backbench rebellions. Even by this administration’s record, that ought to be remarkable. The most significant of the revolts was, of course, the mass display of despondency, incredulity and anger over the imposition of an England-wide lockdown. But there were also more modest Tory rebellions in the Commons concerning Lords’ amendments to the Agriculture Bill and the Immigration and Social Security Coordination bill.

It is no secret that all is not well in the Whips’ Office and that this vital point of connection between Downing Street and backbenchers is struggling to calm and convince Conservative MPs. That yesterday’s lockdown rebels included Mark Harper, the former chief whip, demonstrates how far dissatisfaction with the uncertain course of policy has spread beyond instinctive insurgents.

Almost as interesting as those who voted against the government’s statutory instrument imposing the lockdown were the abstentions and the unconvincing excuses. The Commons debate itself was marked by impassioned attacks from the rebels, and bloodless, unpersuasive defences of the government’s U-turn by MPs reciting the incantation that they were voting with their prime minister with “a heavy heart.” There was a time when Tories rebelled with “a heavy heart.”

The 1922 Committee’s chairman, Sir Graham Brady, confessed that “in over 23 years as a member of this House when I vote against this motion tonight I will do so with greater conviction than I have in casting any vote in those 23 years.” That is quite a statement. Indeed, it was only because of the government’s response to the Brady amendment in September that there was any guarantee that the Commons would even get to debate locking down the people of England. It further took the intervention of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to get the scheduled ninety minutes doubled to three hours. “The fact that we have three hours of debate on such a massive intervention taking away liberty,” suggested Sir Graham, “shows how little we value the liberty of our constituents.”

That time was, however, sufficient to establish consistent objections on the detail (the prohibition of activities that could reasonably be left to continue) and principle (the lockdown is a disproportionate response and scientific advisers have panicked the government into it with projections of questionable worth).

A Conservative government asks a lot when it expects its MPs to temporarily criminalise public worship and golf. It does not endear itself to them when it fails to offer convincing reasons for why it is safe to process down the supermarket aisle to feel the firmness of the avocadoes but not the aisle of the village church or airy cathedral in search of sustenance of a different kind.

A Conservative government asks a lot when it expects its MPs to temporarily criminalise public worship and golf.

Theresa May, who finds a fluency in unpicking her successor’s work that she never found in explaining her own record in office, spoke powerfully of why a government “today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a government in future with the worst of intentions” Sir Edward Leigh confessed he was prepared to believe Boris Johnson’s personal assurance to him that churches, mosques and temples would reopen “soon” for collective worship. The word of Boris was surely, hopefully, sufficient. And if it wasn’t, Sir Edward implied he would not be voting for fresh impositions when the law expires on 2 December.

What comes after 2 December is now all that separates this government from a rebellion so large that there is no prospect of it continuing to carry the House without relying on the support of the Labour party. Really, the prime minister may have to rethink his every Wednesday routine of making cutting remarks about the leader of the Opposition.

In recent days, Boris Johnson has repeated the message that the lockdown is ending on 2 December (what happens if the R-rate is above 1 at that time is clearly an inconvenience best not planned for) and that the virus in England will thereafter be fought through a tiered local and regional approach. Will this be the same three tier approach that was last weekend so presumptuously jettisoned, or will it be a four, five or however differently ordered system with different restrictions to what were imposed previously? On this, the prime minister will not elucidate.

Theresa May finds a fluency in unpicking her successor’s work that she never found in explaining her own record in office

But those Conservative MPs cheering the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who today announced that the Treasury would continue paying 80 percent of the salaries of furloughed staff until March next year, should also ponder what this says about the November lockdown not being a final short-sharp-shock after which life and the economy will bounce back. Serious restrictions are clearly in mind for many months, based on a gamble that an approved vaccine will work its magic in the second half of 2021.

Not all the friendly fire across the government’s bows explodes in the Commons chamber. Much of it is co-ordinated on WhatsApp and communicated either to the Whips’ Office or, when that goes nowhere, directly by published letter to the prime minister.

The evident exasperation of the “Red Wall”-breachers and other northern Conservative MPs has solidified into the 55-MP strong Northern Research Group. Marshalled by the former Northern Powerhouse minister, Jake Berry, many of them were last December the beneficiaries of Boris Johnson’s non-core appeal. If they are going cold on him, then that is a very bad sign.

Berry’s letter to the prime minister laying out his colleagues’ exasperation (northern constituencies have been in lockdown-style restrictions longer than anywhere else in England) and demanding “a clear roadmap down the tiering system and out of restrictions when the lockdown ends on 2 December” is the latest demonstration of how concerned Tory MPs are becoming at a government that will not publish the full risk assessment of lockdown’s economic, health and social-side effects or give the impression it has a strategy beyond waiting for a vaccine.

The equivocation from the secretary of state for housing, Robert Jenrick, to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s questioning him about whether such a comprehensive assessment had even been commissioned, has heighted bemusement at how this government is balancing its priorities. The written reply from the chancellor to the request for a such an economic assessment by Mel Stride, the chairman of the Treasury committee, is further grounds for suspicion that Whitehall has wargamed its lockdown strategy as thoroughly as it planned for a Leave vote in the 2016 referendum. Patience is wearing thin.

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