MPs may fail to get a vote on an amendment giving them more say over future coronavirus restrictions despite rebels having enough support to inflict a damaging defeat on the Government.
The House of Commons will vote on Wednesday on whether to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act, but there are calls for ministers to consult Parliament before introducing new curbs on people’s freedoms.
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, forcing ministers into crisis talks to ward off a revolt.
But, according to reports in both the Guardian and the Times, there are question marks over whether Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will put Sir Graham Brady’s amendment – which has enough support to overturn the Prime Minister’s majority – to a vote.
A constitutional expert told the Guardian the circumstances of this week’s vote – which does not create new legislation but instead gives a choice over whether to continue an existing law – means Sir Lindsay would be unlikely to allow any amendments.
“The act clearly envisages the vote as a yes-no question,” Dr Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, told the paper.
“It doesn’t envisage, ‘yes, but’.”
The binary choice envisaged in the legislation means the Speaker would “probably be justified” in not selecting the amendment, Dr White added.
The Times also reported ministers were “confident” Commons procedure would prevent a vote but that the rebels, which could number as many as 80 according to the paper, could instead be satisfied with a pledge to give more scrutiny over new rules.
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.
Bishop Auckland MP 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'm happy to report it was a cordial and constructive meeting. I hope and expect we will reach a satisfactory agreement
— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) September 28, 2020
“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.
According to the Daily Telegraph, one possible concession on the table is for MPs to be granted a retrospective vote on new coronavirus powers five sitting days after they are laid in Parliament, rather than the current wait of four weeks.
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.
The crunch talks come as Tory grandee Lord Lamont spoke from the Upper Chamber to criticise the Government’s national restrictions, likening them to the so-called “dodgy dossier” used to justify the Iraq war in 2003.
The ex-chancellor told peers: “The powers that the Government have taken are far-reaching. Some might call them draconian.
“The minister has often said that this is a war. Well, I hope that it is not, like the war in Iraq, based on a dodgy dossier, or like the war in Afghanistan, which cannot be won and to which there is no end.”
Warning of the economic cost of the Government’s restrictions, Lord Lamont added: “Having repeated lockdowns while we wait for a vaccine is not a tenable strategy.”