The tribes behind the Tory rebellion on Covid passports

Different factions of the party united last night to send message to Boris Johnson

Steve Baker
Steve Baker has been a vocal critic of the prime minister’s lockdown restrictions
(Image credit: Iktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Almost 100 Tory MPs have joined forces in the biggest parliamentary rebellion yet against Boris Johnson by refusing to back his plans for domestic Covid passports.

“Paradoxically, he won the vote by a huge majority,” said John Rentoul at The Independent. But the prime minister only claimed his hollow victory last night because Labour supported him.

A total of 99 Conservatives voted against the proposal to require people to prove they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or tested negative before entering nightclubs and large events in England. The regulation is among Johnson’s Plan B measures to tackle the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

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In a series of Commons votes, MPs also approved the extension of compulsory face masks in public indoor venues in England; the relaxation of isolation rules for people who are a contact of an Omicron case; and compulsory Covid vaccinations for front-line NHS staff.

“What will worry Downing Street is that the vote brought different wings of the Conservative Party together in opposition to the government’s plans,” said BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley.

The “anti-Johnson feeling” in the Tory backbenches is in part down to his “botched handling” of sleaze scandals and lockdown Christmas parties in Downing Street, wrote Rowena Mason in The Guardian. But an “equally sizeable reason” for discontent with No. 10 is “right-wing, libertarian MPs unhappy with the ideological basis for Covid restrictions”.

Mason suggested that fed-up MPs are rallying under the leadership of Mark Harper and Steve Baker, and the duo’s Covid Recovery Group, which has become “something of a successor to the European Research Group”.

Quentin Letts at The Times described Baker and his followers as “lion-clothed Zulus”, who despair that the PM has veered left. “As sceptical of Covid restrictions as they were of the European Union, these Brexity warriors are naked spear carriers for small-state Toryism.”

But the Tories behind this week’s rebellion extend beyond just the usual suspects. Other tribes included the “Blue Wallers” from former Labour seats in the North, as well as the “Other 2019ers”, according to Letts, who wrote that “rebellion has spread through the Tory 2019 intake faster than Omicron through a submarine”. Even Louie French, who won the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election less than a fortnight ago, voted no.

The insurgents also included the “Men in Suits”, comprising Tory grandees such as Graham Brady and Iain Duncan Smith, and the “This is Personal” group “of Tory grumblers who used to be ministers and now no longer are”, Letts added.

Yes, the rebels came from “every intake” and from “across the party’s traditions”, agreed Stephen Bush in The New Statesman. But while the scale of the revolt will do nothing to quell speculation that Johnson’s leadership “has entered its final act”, it also showed that opposition to further non-pharmaceutical measures within the party is now “mainstream”.

So Johnson “or any alternative PM” would “struggle to impose another lockdown and remain in their job”, Bush concluded.

That verdict may be a relief to The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, who dismissed the “rebel” labels altogether.

“In my book, those upstanding men and women are the true Conservatives,” she said. “Rather, it is those who pushed through this repellently un-British measure, with the help of the Labour Party, who are the traitors to our philosophy.”

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