Tory rebels expect Government concessions over coronavirus powers

Ministers have held crisis talks with Tory MPs in an effort to ward off a revolt over coronavirus laws.

Boris Johnson is under pressure to give Parliament the opportunity to debate and vote on future restrictions, with more than 50 Tory MPs signalling they could rebel on the matter.

MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act, with Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, leading calls for ministers to consult Parliament before introducing new curbs on people’s freedoms.

Some 52 Conservatives publicly back the amendment, enough to wipe out Mr Johnson’s Commons majority if it is put to a vote and the opposition parties support it.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chief Whip Mark Spencer and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg met Conservative MPs in an effort to address their concerns.

Former minister Steve Baker, one of those who signed up to Sir Graham’s amendment, was at the “cordial and constructive meeting”.

“I hope and expect we will reach a satisfactory agreement,” he said.

Mr Baker has likened some of the Government’s coronavirus restrictions to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, specifically referencing a ban on singing and dancing in bars, cafes and restaurants.

Dehenna Davison, who is also signed up to the amendment, said: “All sides are working together to reach an agreement that works, allowing proper scrutiny alongside timely action.”

Mr Hancock told MPs the Government was “looking at further ways to ensure the House can be properly involved in the process in advance where possible”.

“I strongly agree with the need for us in this House to have the appropriate level of scrutiny,” he told MPs.

But he said the Government had to have the ability to act quickly where necessary.

Seven-day rate of new Covid-19 cases
Seven-day rate of new Covid-19 cases

Mr Hancock replied: “The question is how we can have the appropriate level of scrutiny whilst also making sure that we can move fast where that is necessary.”

Conservative rebels seized upon an assessment by academics at University College London (UCL) which concluded that “Parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic”.

A blog post by the UCL’s Professor Meg Russell and Lisa James said: “MPs have genuine cause for complaint.”

They pointed to the new rules which came into force on Monday, but which only appeared in regulation form on Sunday.

“Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings eight days previously, these were not debated in Parliament,” they said.

“Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass Parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.”

They added that decisions to sideline Parliament were part of a “longer-running trend” under Mr Johnson.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

“In his first six months as Prime Minister, Johnson cancelled or indefinitely postponed three Liaison Committee evidence sessions, unlawfully prorogued Parliament, and introduced a Withdrawal Agreement Act which, unlike its predecessor, gave Parliament no real oversight of this year’s Brexit negotiations,” they said.

“All this already suggested a reluctance to face parliamentary scrutiny.”

Former chief whip Mark Harper said he would add his weight to Sir Graham’s amendment unless ministers convinced him they were willing to change course.

In the Commons, he told Mr Hancock: “We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent to it, not I’m afraid just allow (you) to do so by decree.”

The Prime Minister has already committed to “regular statements and debates” on coronavirus in the Commons and promised that MPs will be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly.