The Pfizer Covid vaccine news has come when Boris Johnson needs it most – but he’s still in trouble

Next week will mark a year since the PM’s remarkable election victory. After a torrid 12 months it can only be an unhappy anniversary

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 02 December 2020 12:42
UK announces approval of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine

Today’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, making the UK the first country in the world to give the green light to one, could not come a second too soon for Boris Johnson

It will shift the media spotlight on to the virus rather than last night’s rebellion by 55 Tory MPs against the coronavirus restrictions that now replace the four-week lockdown in England.

But the brilliant news will not totally eclipse a dangerous moment which reminds us that Johnson is losing his authority over his MPs. Some ministers were surprised the imminent breakthrough on a vaccine had not lightened the black Tory mood, and expected a smaller rebellion, rather than the largest of Johnson’s premiership.

Approval of the vaccine 12 hours earlier, and thus before the vote, would not have made much difference. Johnson, his ministers and whips threw the kitchen sink at the rebels to try to limit the scale of their revolt. The prime minister even stood at the entrance to the division lobby to make a last-second personal plea to them.

In the margins of the debate, there was more Tory chatter about how long Johnson will last in Downing Street. That doesn’t mean his critics will try to topple him tomorrow. But it is worrying and debilitating for Johnson. Like the Pfizer vaccine, his relationship with his own MPs is in the deep freeze.

For all their complaints about the injustice of their areas being put in tiers 2 or 3,  the rebels offered no alternative bridge from now until enough people have been vaccinated, probably next spring, to allow the restrictions to be eased. The Commons did its job by approving the new rules with a majority of 213 – and a better job than parliament did during the gridlock over Brexit, when it famously voted down all the possible ways forward. Keir Starmer is coming under fire for looking weak by ordering his MPs to abstain.

Far from the “new leadership” he trumpets, Johnson will accuse Starmer of offering “no leadership”. Yet I doubt voters in the red-turned-blue wall in the north and Midlands will be telling each other: “Hey, you’ll never guess what: that Keir Starmer abstained in the Commons vote on the Covid rules!” Indeed, Starmer would probably be relieved if such voters noticed anything he’d done at all. 

What matters most is that Starmer’s actions ensured the rules were approved; the Labour opposition would surely have voted for them if that had been in any doubt. Opinion polls suggest the public support tough curbs, if necessary putting health before the economy, which the Commons has rightly done.

The Tory rebels disagree. They don’t say it, but essentially they want to put the economy first. The other big factor in the rebellion is that that they simply don’t trust Johnson. The MPs have tired of his super-optimism, distrusting his nods and winks that their constituencies might be moved to a lower tier before Christmas. 

To win some credibility in their eyes,  Johnson will now have to ensure this happens in a few areas when the rules are reviewed on 16 December, though this will look like a political rather than scientific judgment so close to the five-day relaxation over Christmas. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to regain. Despite the vaccine's roll-out, the rebels fear most of the restrictions will last until Easter at the earliest.

There is more trouble ahead for Johnson: Starmer will likely join forces with the Tory awkward squad to force the publication of the government’s full economic assessment of the rules. Last night’s rebellion shows that Johnson’s 80-strong majority is much more fragile than it looks; he would have lost the vote if Labour had opposed him. Another difficult Commons vote on the restrictions looms on 27 January, as they come up for renewal on 3 February.  

Johnson’s approach to last night’s vote reminded some MPs of his description of himself as he agonised over whether to support Leave or Remain in the 2016 referendum: “I'm veering all over the place like a shopping trolley."

After some tough talk about a third lockdown, a real prospect without tough rules, Johnson  showed that his true instincts by appeasing his mutinous MPs. Plainly, it isn’t working.

Next week will mark a year since his remarkable election victory. Johnson will doubtless look forward rather than back; the vaccine does offers hope of a better 2021 and, eventually, a politics more suited to his bouncy optimism. But it’s still a long road from here to there. After a torrid 12 months, for Johnson it can only be an unhappy anniversary. 

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