Boris Johnson has just suffered easily the biggest parliamentary rebellion in his time as prime minister, about twice as big as the previous record, a year ago. Paradoxically, he won the vote by a huge majority, because the Labour Party voted for it.
Even more paradoxically, it was probably the least important of the measures on which MPs voted tonight. The regulation will require people to show proof of vaccine status – or a negative test – to get into nightclubs and large events. We mustn’t call it a vaccine passport, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, insisted, because it allows for the alternative of a lateral flow test. Wes Streeting, his new opposite number, agreed with him. But 99 Conservative MPs did not.
That is, 99 Tory MPs who listened to their prime minister pleading with them as he addressed the 1922 Committee just before the vote – and ignored him. He tried to say he was just like them. He doesn’t like impositions on people’s liberties either – “he wanted to resist and he wanted to push back”, according to one MP at the meeting, but he was persuaded by the scientific advice that “we have to do this”.
His MPs, who dutifully banged the desks in the committee room where the meeting was held, were resolutely unpersuaded. He even gave in at the last moment to one of the rebels’ key demands, promising that if he thought more restrictions were needed after the Commons went into recess on Thursday, he would recall parliament to debate them. “I will ask you back,” he said. They either didn’t believe him, or voted against him anyway.
Parliamentary rebellions are like rows in a relationship. People say things they can’t unsay, and that they may regret later. Bob Seely, a normally mild mannered backbench MP, accused the government of using statistics out of context to “increase fear rather than to increase knowledge”.
What is more, each row strips away another layer of security in the relationship. Johnson always had a conditional bond with his MPs: they made him leader because he was their last best hope of getting Brexit done and saving their seats. But with each rebellion, the habit of internal opposition becomes more ingrained. They are more likely to do it again, and more likely to feel unsentimental about getting rid of their leader if they are sure it is in their interest to do so. Even with Theresa May, they drew back from despatching her when it was obvious that she had lost control of events; with Johnson, they won’t be so reluctant.
Not that we are at that stage yet, but it is extraordinary how soon after the election that Johnson won – and only Johnson could have won it for them – the party has forgotten its gratitude. It seemed, in the heady days after election victory two years ago this week that the unconventional prime minister had achieved the impossible: he had united the Conservative Party, a party that had been divided on the question of Europe for 30 years.
The Eurosceptics, who had made life miserable for John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May, finally had one of their own as leader and prime minister and the party was finally through to a new era of common purpose. Except that after nearly two years of the pandemic, it is the same wing of the party that has split from the Eurosceptic leadership and set itself up as the libertarian internal opposition on the back benches.
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And if, as Sir Jeremy Farrar, the ray of scientific sunshine, observed, we are closer to the start of the pandemic than the end, this civil war is going to rage on for all of the next two and a half years to the next election. No wonder astute observers of the parliamentary Conservative Party, such as Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home, now thinks it more likely than not that Johnson will be replaced as leader before the election.
But what is the public to make of this strange conflict? It seems to be a fight over the wrong issue – indeed, the further paradox of tonight’s votes was that the most important measure, in terms of its effect in curbing the spread of the virus, namely government advice to work from home if possible, wasn’t even voted on, because it is voluntary.
But more than that, public opinion supports the new restrictions. The Labour Party has used them to impress people with its responsibility, patriotism and unity. Wes Streeting, the new shadow health secretary, once again impressed the Commons with an assured performance.
Tonight we felt a shift in the centre of gravity of politics, and it was away from Boris Johnson.
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