This evening feels eerily familiar to anyone who remembers the meaningful votes of Theresa May’s premiership. The Tory rebellion on the Covid measures is bigger than expected; the rebels are claiming to be the mainstream of the parliamentary party; the cabinet ministers loyalists to the PM are blaming the whips office; there are mutterings about how long this can go on for. There is, of course, one crucial difference: thanks to Labour, Boris Johnson won tonight’s vote. But it is clear that if he wants to tighten restrictions further, he will be reliant on Starmer’s party’s support in doing so. Relying on the opposition to get their business through is never a comfortable place for a Prime Minister to be.
The size of the rebellion — 100 MPs — is a shot across the bow of No. 10. There’ll be those rebels whose sole concern was vaccine passports, but there’ll be lots of others who wanted to send a message that they wouldn’t put up with any more restrictions and others who wanted to vent their fury at Boris Johnson. It is quite something for this many Tory MPs to rebel minutes after their leader had made a direct, personal appeal to them to support him at the 1922 committee of backbenchers.
It isn’t clear how Boris Johnson gets out of the bind he is in. Chris Whitty’s warning to the cabinet suggests that he thinks more restrictions will soon be needed, which will only further strain Johnson’s relations with his own party. At the same time, Tory MPs have begun to talk openly about when there might be a leadership contest if things don’t improve — Geoffrey Clifton Brown, the treasurer of the 1922 committee, has done an interview tonight saying there’ll be a confidence vote next summer if things don’t improve.
Johnson can hope that the North Shropshire by-election might be a Tory hold on Thursday: I suspect Number 10 would — despite how safe this seat normally is — bite your hand off for any majority there at all. In terms of the next month, he has to hope that the booster campaign can start doing really big numbers, so he doesn’t end up having to go for more restrictions. But tonight he is, undoubtedly, in the weakest position of his premiership to date.