When the third national lockdown came to a vote in parliament last week, only 12 Conservative MPs voted against the measures. This was a far cry from the second lockdown – which saw a rebellion of over 50 – and the mood at that time. Back in November, members of the Covid Recovery Group – made up of Tory MPs sceptical of tighter restrictions – were warning that a third lockdown would see a rebellion in the three-figure mark.
So, what's changed? Speak to former lockdown rebels and it's a mix of factors that has provoked a rethink. The approval of several vaccines means that there is now a reasonable argument to be made that this will be the last national lockdown rather than one in a never-ending cycle. Second, the data. Where in the past many Tory MPs were sceptical of the data and how it was framed, the number of infections and the impact on hospitals is viewed as different this time around.
But the third reason – and the one that will have the biggest impact on UK politics – is a sense that the most important debate isn't on lockdown anymore (which is viewed as temporary) but vaccines: how many need to be vaccinated before restrictions can not only be eased but ended altogether.
Covid Recovery Group chair Mark Harper has in this vein issued a call for the government to start relaxing restrictions next month – and there has been a push for a roadmap. What Tory MPs want is not only a vaccination priority list and plan, but to know what restrictions will be lifted once a certain group has been vaccinated. However, this is a conversation that No. 10 does not want to have right now. Government officials say in any decision to ease the lockdown, vaccinations are only one factor – hospital admissions and NHS capacity will be just as important.
In Johnson's Zoom meeting with his party last week, rather than question the immediate lockdown, Covid Recovery Group members asked what the government was learning from Israel's speedy vaccination programme and how soon before two vaccinated people could meet. These are arguments that are going to be aired more as the weeks go on – once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, backbenchers will push for most – if not all – restrictions to go.
They are, however, braced for resistance. Those close to the Prime Minister insist that he wants to get rid of as many restrictions as possible as soon as he can. But they warn that there will be arguments from SAGE scientists and others to keep some restrictions in place for a while over issues such as 'long Covid'. With the government to start publishing vaccine data daily from today, expect Tory MPs to use this to make targeted interventions.