Covid: Boris Johnson dismisses Tory call for vote at end of January on easing lockdown

Lockdown sceptics bridle at 31 March end-date for regulations imposing controls

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Jon Stone
Wednesday 06 January 2021 17:36 GMT
PM rejects call for early vote to end lockdown

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Boris Johnson has dismissed a call from anti-lockdown Tory MPs for a vote at the end of January on lifting coronavirus restrictions.

Conservative backbenchers are disgruntled over legislation giving the government power to maintain controls until 31 March, despite the prime minister’s previous suggestion that they would be needed only until mid-February.

A leading member of the Covid Research Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, Steve Baker, called on the PM for “a clear plan to restore our freedoms in full and fast” to avoid a voter backlash.

Writing in The Critic magazine, Mr Baker told Tories not to be “deluded by public opinion polls supporting radical lockdowns with near-Soviet levels of business intervention and public funding”, warning: “When the price comes to be paid for what we are doing now, they will not be with us in either the polls or ballot boxes.”

And CRG chair Mark Harper called for a “substantial relaxation” of restrictions as soon as the four top priority groups have been vaccinated.

But any rebellion when the bill comes to a vote in the House of Commons later today is likely to be muted, as MPs fell in behind the PM in response to chilling figures showing more than 1m Britons are now infected by the fast-spreading coronavirus.

In contrast to the loud howls of protest seen at the time of the second lockdown in November, most Tory critics in the Commons raised concerns not about the imposition of restrictions but their duration.

When former minister Sir Desmond Swayne described measures such as the closure of golf clubs as “pervaded by a pettifogging malice”, Mr Johnson responded: “Pettifogging, yes. Malicious, no. The intention – and I’m going to have to take the hit here – the intention is to stop the virus, to protect the NHS and to save lives.”

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Johnson sought to damp down expectations of a swift return to normal life, warning that the government will be “extremely cautious” about winding down restrictions “brick by brick” after a review planned for 15 February.

He said that “significant opportunities” to ease controls would come only if the programme of vaccinations was successful in curbing spread and if people obey lockdown rules.

But senior Tory Sir Graham Brady, chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee sought to force the pace on the lifting of lockdown by demanding a Commons vote at the end of both January and February.

Sir Graham said: “Many of us are concerned that we  are being asked to approve a lockdown, which could continue until 31 March.”

Calling on the PM to “reconsider”, the Altrincham and Sale MP demanded “a vote at the end of January and at the end of February as well, not on whether to lift restrictions, but on whether to continue them or not”.

And former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling called on Mr Johnson to “personally lead a debate before February half-term on progress towards reducing restrictions and … not wait until the end of March to do so, if it is possible to to so without overwhelming the NHS?”

Mr Johnson said MPs would have an opportunity to debate lockdown “before the end of March and I hope substantially before the end of March”.

But he refused to commit to an early vote, telling Sir Graham: “I can't believe it will be until the end of March that the House has to wait before having a new vote and a new discussion of the measures we have to take.”

And he told Kensington MP Felicity Buchan that it was no more than a “cautious presumption” that restrictions would be eased at the planned 15 February review.”
Ms Buchan told the PM: “I understand there cannot be a cast-iron guarantee, we’re in a moving situation, but my constituents would like there to be a presumption, especially when it comes to schools.”

Mr Johnson said he “shares her constituents’ instincts”, but said he would advise them to make no more than a “cautious presumption” on the issue.

Boris Johnson on restrictions: "Pettifogging yes, malice no"

One of the small number of outright rebels is Conservative MP Charles Walker, who said he could not support the legislation, telling the Commons:

"I can't support criminalising a parent for seeing a child in the park over the coming months. It's not within my DNA to do that." The new rules however doe not prevent this.

The MP conceded there was "no doubt" that he would "be on the losing side" in the vote, and said he would comply with the laws when they came in.

But Mr Walker added: "It's so easy for me to comply with the law - it's so easy for most people in the House to comply with the law.

"We're comfortably off, we live in nice houses, we have gardens, outdoor spaces, we have access to family.

"The same applies to those journalists who fill our TV screens every night with their wisdom and wit about how people should comply with those regulations and how they sneer at those who can't."

He argued that the next three months would be "really hard for a lot of people who don't have my advantages".

"We in this place [and] the journalists up there with all their privileges, instead of smearing and dismissing them, instead of calling them 'Covididiots', should show some compassion and understanding," he added. 

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