Tory curfew rebellion shows scale of discontent on Covid rules
Conservative MPs gave the latest demonstration of the scale of backbench disquiet about the effects of government measures to curb coronavirus when 42 of them on Monday night voted against a series of restrictions, including the introduction of a 10pm curfew for pubs in England.
The Tory rebels were among 82 MPs to oppose the Health Protection Regulations following a debate in which much of the fiercest criticism of the government came from its own MPs.
Among those voting against was Chris Green, the Conservative MP for Bolton West and Atherton, who quit as a junior ministerial aide to oppose the regulations. In his resignation letter to prime minister Boris Johnson Mr Green said he was “increasingly concerned” about the effects of the measures being taken to curb the spread of the virus, particularly in the Greater Manchester area, which includes his constituency.
“The Greater Manchester ‘local lockdown’ and the even more extreme economic lockdown have both failed to control the number of positive tests within the borough of Bolton, which have inexorably risen,” Mr Green wrote.
A group of 23 mostly leftwing Labour MPs also defied the party’s instructions to abstain on the vote.
However, with most Conservative members supporting the government and Labour largely abstaining, the regulations passed by a majority of 299 votes to 82.
The challenge facing Mr Johnson from his own benches was clear from the passion of many of the speeches by Conservative MPs opposing the measures, which many portrayed as disproportionately harmful either to the economy or to personal freedom.
The critics included some Conservatives — such as Edward Leigh, member for Gainsborough — who went on to support the government despite their misgivings.
There was particularly strong criticism of the 10pm curfew for pubs, which has brought large numbers spilling out on to streets simultaneously in many places, and of the current structure of the “rule of six”, which prevents large social gatherings.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said the government could make some urgent changes to improve the rules, including exempting young children from the rule of six, getting rid of the curfew and bringing in testing at airports.
“In my view it is wrong to use public health legislation to . . . direct the lives of an entire population,” said Sir Graham, who went on to vote against the government.
John Redwood, a former cabinet minister who also voted against the measures, said he was “apprehensive” about how enforceable many of the measures would be.
“We do need a plan for the idea that there is not an early successful vaccine,” Sir John said. “We don’t want a continuous cycle where virus pops up, we impose control, virus goes away a bit, we impose more controls. It would destroy many more businesses and livelihoods.”
Edward Argar, the health minister, nevertheless insisted that the measures were necessary.
“We need to take further measures to protect the public, as we have throughout the pandemic,” Sir Edward told the Commons.
The government agreed to bring the measures to a vote in the Commons in response to unhappiness among Tory MPs that most measures against coronavirus had been introduced without any scrutiny in parliament.