Katy Balls

Steve Baker’s warning for No. 10 points to the next Tory battle

Steve Baker's warning for No. 10 points to the next Tory battle
Steve Baker (photo: Getty)
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As government ministers avoid putting a date on an easing of restrictions, let alone an end to them, scientific advisers have stepped in to fill the silence. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam has suggested the lockdown could remain in place well into spring while Professor Neil Ferguson – who briefly stood down from his role last year for breaking lockdown rules – has suggested measures could be in place until the autumn. This, however, is not going down well with the Tory MPs who make up the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group.

As the Sun reports, Steve Baker has issued a rallying call to his fellow members over the situation. He suggests that opposition to restrictions will soon become a question of leadership – and Boris Johnson's future as Prime Minister. Baker says the debate will become 'about the PM’s leadership if the Government does not set out a clear plan for when our full freedoms will be restored, with a guarantee that this strategy will not be used again next winter'. 

In order to hammer this point home to No. 10, Baker says it is 'imperative' MPs make this clear to the Chief Whip. Baker complains that the government's current strategy – or lack thereof – is hurting the party with their base: 'people are telling me they are losing faith in our Conservative Party leadership'. Baker wants a clear path out of lockdown and for all restrictions to be lifted. Since the comments came to light, he has also tried to water down his comments – insisting Johnson still remains the only man for the job.

So, is Johnson's leadership under threat? No. That seems premature. The third lockdown was overwhelmingly backed by MPs – with a comparatively small Tory rebellion compared to previous votes. The number of MPs willing to oppose the government on its lockdown strategy has in the short-term decreased. With the death toll on Wednesday alone at over 1,500, many lockdown sceptics plan to keep their powder dry for the time being. Rather than oppose immediate lockdown measures, they are turning their attention to the debate on how many need to be vaccinated before restrictions can be lifted.

Here Baker's concerns are a sign of things to come. While the bulk of Tory MPs support the government's approach for now – and are relieved there is finally a good news story to tell in the vaccination programme – the bulk are keen for restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible. Boris Johnson insists this is his wish too. 

However, MPs worry that Johnson will be pushed by his scientific advisers and some cabinet ministers to keep restrictions in place for much longer than they believe is reasonable. In the parliamentary party, many see the point by which the vulnerable have been vaccinated as when restrictions go. They see spring as the point when many restrictions ought to be lifted and the summer the point by which there ought to be no restrictions in place. So far, Johnson has been reluctant to give a specific timeline. That position is going to become much harder to maintain as the weeks and months go on and discontent on restrictions grows.