The system of tiered coronavirus restrictions will come into force at midnight tonight after MPs voted by 291 votes to 78, a majority of 213, to implement the new measures. That represents a significant fall in the majority of 478 that voted for the nationwide lockdown measures just a month ago, with the Conservative rebellion growing from 35 then to 55 now – Boris Johnson’s biggest rebellion to date. Many more Tory MPs abstained.
Any chance that the government could lose the vote was scotched yesterday when Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer announced that his MPs would be ordered to abstain in the vote rather than vote against the government. He also saw a smaller rebellion as 15 of his MPs rebelled amidst a fracturing of party discipline on both sides.
The attention, though, was on the scale of the Conservative rebellion, with some government sources briefing that as many as 100 of their own MPs could rebel. That number was downplayed by the rebel side as both sought to manage expectations ahead of the vote. Symbolically, the final figure of 55 rebel Tory MPs is greater than the government’s majority, meaning that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matthew Hancock had to rely on opposition MPs abstaining in order to get their regulations passed by the House.
Hancock had wrapped up the debate for the government with a tragic personal story, revealing that his step-grandfather had died of coronavirus last month in Liverpool. He went onto pay tribute to the work Liverpudlians had done to control the virus, saying: “It’s down by four-fifths in Liverpool. That’s what we can do if we work together in the spirit of common humanity.”
His opposite number Jonathan Ashworth explained that his party had wanted more support for businesses, saying: “Fundamentally we support public health restrictions, but you cannot introduce public health restrictions without giving our businesses the support to survive, and that is our difference here tonight.” The government had earlier sought to assuage some of those concerns by announcing a £1,000 payment to pubs forced to close. Industry leaders, however, attacked the plan as insufficient.
The Liberal Democrats also refused to back the new restrictions with their leader Sir Ed Davey saying that the government had failed to deliver on clear information, proper financial support, or a comprehensive test and trace system. He also attacked the implementation of the £500 self-isolation payments.
A common complaint among Conservative MPs was the county-wide level that had been used to decide which tier areas would be placed into. Another was the fact that many areas which had been in tier 1 before the current national lockdown were now emerging from it in a higher tier despite having lower case numbers.
Kenilworth and Southam MP and former cabinet minister Jeremy Wright, an infrequent rebel, voted against the government and highlighted the impact on businesses, saying, “It is profoundly damaging to hospitality businesses in particular.”
Northern Irish DUP MP Sammy Wilson criticised the whole coronavirus debate as “project fear on steroids” despite these regulations only applying to England. Northern Ireland has a similar set of restrictions set by the Northern Ireland executive of which the DUP are a prominent member.
Details of which area is in which tier and what the restrictions are can be found on the government’s website.