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Katy Balls

Why a large rebellion matters for Johnson

Why a large rebellion matters for Johnson
(UK Parliament)
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Boris Johnson will this evening face his largest Tory rebellion yet as the issue of vaccine passports comes to a vote in the House of Commons. Today MPs will vote on various aspects of the government's Covid Plan B proposals — much of which has already come into force. There will be four votes: one on face masks being mandatory in venues like the cinema and theatre; another on daily lateral flow testing to avoid self-isolation if you are a close contact of a positive Omicron case; a third on mandatory vaccination for NHS staff and finally — and most controversially — the introduction of vaccine passports. 

The Spectator has a live tally of the Tory MPs planning to rebel on the issue of so-called Covid passports. It is currently at 82 — larger than the Prime Minister's majority. Still, no one thinks Johnson will lose the vote given Labour has said they will back the measures. Instead, the rebellion will offer a sense of the discontent among Tory MPs both at the new measure and at their leader. The number is expected to go even higher — with some MPs such as Stephen Crabb saying they are unhappy with the proposal but will only decide whether to rebel on the day. There is also the payroll vote — various parliamentary private secretaries and junior ministers — made up of MPs from the younger intakes, who are considering breaking the whip and losing their government role in the process. There's talk that some of these MPs could be shipped to North Shropshire to campaign for Thursday's by-election so as to allow both sides to save face.

Does it matter if Johnson has to rely on Labour votes if he gets his policy through? The government is so confident of the result of tonight's votes that there are already advertisements offering information on how vaccine passports will work when they come into effect later this week. Yet a large rebellion matters politically for Johnson on two counts. The first is Omicron. With the health secretary claiming yesterday that modelling suggests there may have been 200,000 infections yesterday, the speed at which the variant is spreading could outpace any booster programme. Therefore talk has once again turned to the idea of further restrictions. 'Plan C' could involve limits on social contact, new rules for hospitality and social distancing. Tonight's vote will provide a good indicator as to how much resistance Johnson would come up against were he to bring in new measures.

The question is, would it be sustainable for Johnson to go into the new year pushing measures that a large chunk of his party — larger than his majority and larger than the number needed for a confidence vote — opposes? There has been plenty of talk about a potential confidence vote in the Prime Minister following various unforced errors. A lot here, however, depends on the specifics of the pandemic — if the country appears to be in a Covid crisis, MPs could well change tack and support him. Given the current unease in the parliamentary party over the Downing Street operation, it puts Johnson in an uncomfortable position going into the new year. There are plenty of Tory MPs who have never wanted Johnson to succeed — now they have an issue around which to unite.