COVID-19: Boris Johnson facing showdown with Tory lockdown rebels
Boris Johnson is facing a showdown with Conservative backbench COVID-19 lockdown rebels in the second Commons recall of the Christmas recess.
A day which begins with a 90-minute interrogation for the prime minister by COVID critics is likely to end with a Tory rebellion in a vote on the latest lockdown in England.
In between, education secretary Gavin Williamson will face the wrath of MPs over his school closures U-turn and cancellation of this summer’s exams.
In the first Christmas recall of MPs, a week ago, the prime minister secured a major triumph with a vote backing his Brexit trade deal by 521-73, a majority of 448.
But this time, despite the vast majority of MPs taking part remotely after a plea by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to stay away, the mood will be both sombre and fractious.
Although Sir Keir Starmer says Labour will vote for the lockdown, ensuring a hefty government majority, many Tory MPs are poised to vote against or abstain.
The Commons sitting comes after the grim news that more than a million people in England – one in 50 – now have coronavirus, with the infection rate one in 30 in London.
There was also a warning from England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty at the latest Downing Street briefing that COVID curbs may still be needed next winter.
Looking ahead to the Commons clashes, ex-minister Jake Berry told Sky News: “The real question MPs will be asking is what is the route out of lockdown?
“It appears with this vaccine that we have a route, so we want to hear from the government what their plan is to roll out this vaccine.
“Also we want to understand what percentage of the population has to be vaccinated before we can release the economy.
“We want a target, we want a time frame, we want to make sure people can get back to normal.”
Earlier, as Tory MPs demanded to know when lockdown curbs will be lifted during a 45-minute Zoom call with the prime minister, he replied with a floral analogy
Addressing the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson said he hoped to ease the lockdown “before the end of the tulip season, before the end of the daffodil season, even”.
His MPs took that to mean March, April or even May, leaving many of his backbenchers unhappy, despite his plea that felt he had no choice but to resort to a national lockdown.
Among protests about school closures, the Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon told the PM remote learning would result in levelling down rather than the government’s pledge to level up.
The prime minister was also asked whether this year’s local elections – many of which were postponed from last year – would proceed as planned. He said he hoped they would, as things should be much better by May.
Earlier, Mark Harper, a former chief whip who chairs the lockdown-sceptic Coronavirus Recovery Group, also called on the government to explain how it will bring England out of the current restrictions.
“The government must urgently set out exactly how the vaccination rollout will translate into a return to normal life for us all in 2021, how and when it will lift restrictions and when our freedoms, economy and health prospects will be fully restored,” he said.
“These cycles of lockdowns and restrictions are not without downsides – impacting on jobs, health and life chances that will be visible for years to come.
“It’s vital we act as swiftly as we can to vaccinate those most at risk.”
And ex-minister and former David Cameron aide Sir Desmond Swayne said he was in despair at the new lockdown. The rules were “enough to make your blood boil”, he said.
“The existing strategy comes at an enormous social and economic cost,” he told Express.co.uk. “As we’ve seen, it’s not very effective.”
It has even been claimed this week that two unnamed Tory MPs elected at last year’s general election had submitted letters of no-confidence in the prime minister to Graham Brady, who chairs the backbench 1922 Committee.
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