Covid restrictions are meant to end on 19 July. But parliament will not return to normal until September. The Commons goes into recess on 22 July and there’s no desire in government to end proxy voting for the dregs of the session. The chief whip has told colleagues that he might struggle to get MPs to come to Westminster for just the last three days of term.
The Commons chamber has been a strange place during the pandemic: less bear pit, more petting zoo. Since so few MPs have been allowed in, it has been far harder for them to persuade their colleagues by force of argument or to put a minister under sustained pressure. This has neutered the chamber as a force.
The Covid restrictions have distorted things in other ways too. Labour have not opposed the lockdowns and various other rules. This has made the Tory rebellions irrelevant in terms of whether the measures passed or not. But it is worth noting that the latest extension of the restrictions went through only because the opposition backed it — 49 Tory MPs voted against it, meaning that if every opposition MP had done the same the regulations would have fallen.
It should be noted that, as one rebel admits, some of these 49 might have hesitated if they thought voting against would condemn the government to defeat. But the worry for Boris Johnson is that rebellion becomes a habit. Those MPs who opposed the government on Covid will find it easier to do so on other issues in the future. There are already Tory rebellions growing on planning reform and the cut to foreign aid. When parliament finally returns to normal, the Prime Minister will find life harder.
Johnson faces two other problems. First, the manner in which he won the leadership — resigning from the cabinet, voting against a three-line whip on Theresa May’s Brexit deal — means he can’t call on loyalty from former ministers the way a Tory prime minister normally can. (I’m told that when May was canvassing at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, she took a certain pleasure in telling the campaign team about voters who said they weren’t voting Conservative because of Johnson.) Second, his relationship with the parliamentary party has been transactional. MPs back him because he is a winner. If they don’t think he will help them hold their own seats, even if the party has a healthy lead nationally, they will cut up rough.
Last week’s by-election, which saw the Liberal Democrats replace a 16,000 Conservative majority with an 8,000 majority of their own, has sparked a panic among Tories sitting for similar seats. ‘You can’t overstate the rage of southern MPs at the moment,’ says one ‘Blue Wall’ Tory. ‘Whatever their gripe is, it is why we lost Chesham and Amersham.’ There is a view among southern Conservatives that northern seats have been getting No. 10’s attention because their MPs shout louder. One speculates that they need ‘a southern version of Jake Berry’, the pugnacious leader of the Northern Research Group.
The Lib Dems campaigned heavily on their opposition to the government’s planning reforms, so their victory has intensified concerns about the proposals on the Tory benches. One PPS admits that he has ‘never seen anything like’ the rebellion brewing on the issue. Some of it is opportunistic. ‘Lots of people who are not personally well-disposed to the idea of planning reform are using Chesham and Amersham to gain leverage over the government,’ complains a loyalist.
An aspect of the Lib Dem campaign that particularly struck home was the claim that the planning reform would mean there would be some individual developments that residents won’t be able to object to. The whips are indicating to MPs that there will probably be movement on this point when the bill is finally published.
The Tories must be careful, though. A failure to sort out Britain’s dysfunctional planning system would simply store up problems. If getting on the housing ladder becomes increasingly unrealistic for all but the wealthiest young people in the south-east then, to adapt Chris Patten’s phrase, the facts of life will cease to be Conservative.
An interesting guide to the mood of the parliamentary party will be the election of the chairman of the 1922 Committee on 7 July. Ministers and whips cannot vote — which makes it a good barometer of backbench opinion. That is particularly true in this contest as the two candidates are so different. The incumbent Graham Brady, who has been doing the job since 2010, is standing again. He has been a frequent critic of lockdown and has voted against it on multiple occasions. His opponent is Heather Wheeler, a former minister and now a generally loyal backbencher. She is backed by Robert Goodwill, another former minister, who briefly considered a run himself.
Since the Commons is still under restrictions, the campaign has been low-key. One sociable Tory MP tells me that he has ‘never had a conversation with a colleague about it’. Another unpredictable element is the fact that 107 Conservatives MPs (around 30 per cent) were elected for the first time in 2019. This means they have spent very little time in parliament because of the pandemic and so they don’t know either candidate particularly well. As one MP puts it: ‘All the newbies’ contact with Graham has been through Zoom.’ I hear the Wheeler team has canvassed the new intake more assiduously, and that it has borne some fruit. Even so, the view among most Tory MPs I’ve spoken to is that Brady has enough support to win. If he is re-elected, it would be a reminder of the independent streak that runs through the Tory parliamentary party.
Once Covid passes, politics will be very different. The Commons chamber will matter again, and the government will have a testing time there. In a sign of his mood, the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, last week accused Downing Street of ‘misleading the House’. While he won’t go as far as John Bercow and overturn convention to try to cause trouble for the government, he will not be helpful to the executive. But the most significant change for Johnson once parliament finally returns to normal will be that the government will have to pay much more attention to its backbenchers. That majority of 80 doesn’t look as large as it did 18 months ago.