Boris Johnson has been warned that a leadership challenge is “on the cards” in the New Year after 99 Conservative MPs defied him over Plan B Covid restrictions in the largest rebellion of his premiership.
The prime minister was forced to rely on the votes of Labour MPs to win Commons approval for the introduction of Covid passes at nightclubs and sports and entertainment venues, which comes into effect in England on Wednesday.
Sir Keir Starmer said the vote was a “very significant blow to the already damaged authority of the prime minister”, showing he was “too weak to discharge the basic functions of government”.
Asked whether he would call on Johnson to resign, Starmer said: “The prime minister needs to take a long, hard look at himself and ask himself whether he has the authority to take this country through the pandemic. This is a very significant blow for him.”
A senior member of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said that a leadership challenge in the New Year was “on the cards” unless the prime minister unites the party by delivering a “major change in the way he does things”.
And Former chief whip Mark Harper called on Mr Johnson to listen to the “clear message” sent by Conservative MPs who have lost trust in his leadership and want a change of approach.
Tory discontent with the PM’s performance will be whipped up further if the party fails to retain its stronghold seat of North Shropshire in a by-election on Thursday in which Liberal Democrats believe they are “on the knife-edge” of a historic victory.
The prime minister and health secretary Sajid Javid pulled out all the stops in a failed bid to limit the size of the backbench revolt, with Mr Johnson speaking personally to MPs and addressing a meeting of the 1922 Committee in the minutes before the crucial vote.
In a sombre speech, Mr Johnson told Tory backbenchers that he wanted the country to be “as free as we can possibly be” but had “absolutely no choice” but to introduce new restrictions in the face of scientific advice that omicron will become the dominant strain of Covid in the UK within days.
The PM promised to give MPs a say if he had to impose further and tougher measures, and indicated that he could recall parliament if rising case numbers forced him to act during the House of Commons’ Christmas break.
And chief medical officer Chris Whitty gave MPs a chilling briefing, warning of a “significant increase” in omicron patients entering hospital over the Christmas period due to the extreme transmissibility of the variant, which is already believed to be infecting 200,000 people a day.
But few would-be rebels appear to have been won over by the PM’s pleas, with Mr Harper saying that the rebellion was far larger than had been expected.
A series of recent issues, from the botched attempt to save Owen Paterson from punishment for sleaze to the row over the Downing Street Christmas party, had been “very damaging” for the PM, said the former chief whip, who challenged Mr Johnson for the leadership in 2019.
“Conservative MPs have sent the prime minister a message,” said Mr Harper. “The right thing to do is for the prime minister to listen, to do things differently and better.”
He warned that parliament must be recalled if any further measures were being considered.
Sir Geoffrey warned that disunity would put the Tories at risk of losing the next election, adding: “The prime minister has got to now be in some danger, and he has got to realise that. If he realises he has got it wrong and comes back in the New Year and does things in a different way and consults the party more, then we have a good chance of uniting.
“But if that doesn’t happen, then we are in trouble.”
And 1922 vice-chair Sir Charles Walker said Mr Johnson must respond to the “cry of pain” from his party, warning: “This is a very, very specific line being drawn in the sand now and I think the prime minister and his team need to listen.”
Some 38 Tories rebelled against the PM over the move to mandatory face-masks in indoor public venues including pubs, restaurants, theatres and places of worship, which passed the Commons by 441-41.
But 97 voted against Covid passes - with another two acting as tellers for the No vote – as proposals to require proof of double-vaccination or a recent negative test for access to mass-audience venues like sports stadiums and music concerts passed by 369-126.
Some 61 Tories rebelled over the introduction of mandatory vaccines for NHS staff as the measure passed by 385-100, with 22 Labour MPs also breaking their party’s whip on a move which is deeply unpopular with unions.
Among Conservative rebels were a large group of Red Wall MPs who won northern and Midlands seats from Labour under Johnson’s leadership in 2019, including Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw), Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland), James Grundy (Leigh), Mark Jenkinson (Workington), Mark Logan (Bolton North East), Robbie Moore (Keighley), Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) and Christian Wakeford (Bury South).
Also opposing the government was parliament’s newest MP, Louie French, less than two weeks after winning the Old Bexley and Sidcup seat in a by-election which saw the Tory vote share shrink.
Mr Johnson was accused of “going into panic and emergency mode” by lockdown-sceptic Tories who insisted that passes and mandatory mask-wearing were a disproportionate response to a variant which has so far been linked to only 10 hospitalisations and one death in the UK.
Ex-minister Sir Desmond Swayne said that the hospitality industry had become “collateral damage” in the effort to stop the spread of omicron.
He said the government had created a “ministry of fear” in the shape of the UK Health Security Agency, whose name he said must have been dreamt up by “Stalinist minds” to increase public compliance with restrictions.
“Get them out there twisting the fear button and by and large you will get the reaction you want – people will crave more enforcement and more fearsome measures to protect them from this great danger that is out there,” said Swayne.
The government had “abandoned… any principle of social democracy, of liberal democracy, absolutely beyond anything we’ve endured in recent living memory”, he said.
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said: “The most dangerous epidemic sweeping the world and sweeping our country is an epidemic of fear. It has seriously damaged mental health and in particularly damaged the mental health of our young people, it must end.”
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