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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Boris Johnson suffered his biggest rebellion since becoming UK prime minister, forcing him to rely on opposition votes to implement a key measure to stop the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Almost 100 Conservative Party MPs opposed his plan to mandate the use of so-called Covid passes at nightclubs and other venues in England to try to help prevent the spread of the new strain, easily surpassing the 55-strong rebellion Johnson suffered a year ago that was also over coronavirus measures.

It’s a significant blow to his authority and comes at a critical time ahead of a special parliamentary election this week that could damage his standing still further. It also risks limiting his options to respond to the pandemic if the Omicron crisis deepens, with infections running at an estimated 200,000 a day.

The magnitude of the rebellion illustrates the depth of anger among his MPs, not just at the erosion of civil liberties they say his coronavirus rules represent. They’re also frustrated at some of Johnson’s self-inflicted errors that have damaged the party in recent weeks.

Just two years on from securing the Tories’ biggest majority since 1987, the idea of a leadership challenge to Johnson is suddenly not so far-fetched.

“He’s got to now be in some danger,” Tory rebel Geoffrey Clifton-Brown told Sky News. “The prime minister’s really got to think very carefully about how he’s going to reset his performance to actually govern with a united party, because we all know what happens to a disunited party,” he said, adding that a leadership challenge has “got to be on the cards” in 2022.

Adding to the Tory woes, the Daily Mirror published a photograph that it said was of a party organised by London assembly member Shaun Bailey’s mayoral campaign on December 14 2020, in breach of Covid-19 rules at the time. Bailey, who features in the photo of more than 20 people, quit as chair of the assembly’s police and crime committee, the paper said. The Greater London Authority Conservatives didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

“It’s disgraceful to have a party like that and break the rules,” transport secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News on Wednesday. “That’s unacceptable and the consequences that follow, follow.”

What began with Johnson’s mishandling of an ethics probe morphed into a major public relations crisis over allegations his staff held Christmas parties against pandemic rules in 2020. Amid the turmoil, the Tories have slumped in the polls, handing a lead to Keir Starmer’s Labour in many surveys.

Key election

It means that Thursday’s vote in the parliamentary seat of North Shropshire, which in normal times should be a safe hold for the Tories defending a majority of almost 23,000, is suddenly a moment of danger for Johnson. There are signs the Liberal Democrats are running the Tory candidate close.

A loss there, on top of the restlessness among Tories over Johnson’s recent missteps, would raise questions about his leadership.

“This will happen over and over again” unless the ministers listen to what MPs are saying, Conservative MP Mark Harper told Sky News about the rebellion. They should be consulting with the party before deciding on new rules, he said.

Ahead of the votes, Johnson met rank-and-file Tories to persuade them of the need for the new pandemic measures. He told them that lots of people will catch Covid-19 due to Omicron and it only needs a small percentage to be hospitalised to create a real problem, according to one MP in the meeting.

As if to illustrate the point, a succession of high-profile MPs announced positive tests on Tuesday, including Labour shadow cabinet members Rachel Reeves, Bridget Phillipson and Jim McMahon, and Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey.

Johnson is relying on the new rules, along with a massively expanded coronavirus vaccine booster programme, to get the country through the Omicron crisis. He overcame smaller Tory rebellions to win votes to expand the use of face coverings and mandate vaccination for National Health Service workers.

The government has said it has no plans to go further, and Johnson is particularly keen to avoid any more curbs at Christmas for a second year.

Yet his dependence on Labour votes on Tuesday, could have major implications if the virus demands further steps he’s politically unable to take.

“The prime minister needs to ask himself the question whether he has the authority to lead the country through this pandemic,” Starmer told Sky News.

During nearly five hours of at times heated debate in parliament, a succession of Tory backbenchers intervened to criticise the new measures — which are far less stringent than the lockdown and other rules in other parts of Europe — arguing they are illiberal, unproven and inconsistent.

Former health minister Steve Brine said the rule on Covid-19 passes “crosses a Rubicon” and he could not support it. Andrew Bridgen suggested the rules aren’t “effective, evidence-based, logical” and lacked broad public support.

“I cannot see when this will end: Covid will be with us for many years to come, and it’s unthinkable that every autumn from now on we will be limiting the quality of life for all citizens just to be on the safe side,” Andrea Leadsom, a former member of Johnson’s cabinet, told the Commons. “This is a slippery slope down which I do not want to slip.”

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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