Conservative ministers in disarray over crunch Tiers system vote

Published: 1 December 2020, 2:08 PM

Post Desk : Boris Johnson’s attempt to see off a record Commons rebellion tonight against coronavirus restrictions was undermined as ministers openly contradicted each other about pandemic policies.

Plans for a new “immunity passport” allowing greater freedom to visit pubs and restaurants, which were suggested only yesterday by newly appointed vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi, were publicly dumped on by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who said: “No, that’s not being planned.”

At the same time, ministerial confusion continued over what constitutes a “substantial meal” in a pub, with Mr Gove disagreeing with Environment Secretary George Eustice who yesterday argued that a scotch egg could qualify.

Mr Gove said the sausage-meat and egg snack was “a starter” and not a meal. Later he changed his tune and said: “A scotch egg is a substantial meal. I myself would definitely scoff a couple of scotch eggs if I had the chance.”

 

The policy disarray deepened with just hours to go before the critical Commons vote to return to a three-tier system of restrictions on pubs, restaurants and social gatherings from tomorrow.

Conservative backbenchers looked determined to stage the biggest rebellion since the general election in the Commons, with predictions that 50 could defy the whips. Some said more than 70 might abstain or vote against.

Labour MPs told the Standard that “a significant number” of them would also vote against the tiered restrictions, further reducing the Government’s majority. Although there was little danger of Mr Johnson being defeated, a rebellion on such a scale would leave his authority damaged.

In key developments in the hours leading up to the 7pm vote:

The Prime Minister led a frantic behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade Conservative backbenchers to support the tiered system, phoning rebels and offering assurances that areas could be brought down from the Tier 3 curbs to Tier 2 if caseloads fall in December. Mr Johnson was due to open the Commons debate in person.
Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would officially abstain — but some of his backbenchers said they would vote against the Government, reducing Mr Johnson’s majority. Former Labour minister John Spellar told the Standard he would vote against, saying: “I and a number of my colleagues believe that Matt Hancock and his crew have not got a clue. They are attacking hospitality as a gesture and putting livelihoods at risk.”
Mr Gove defended the decision to put London into Tier 2 restrictions, despite leaks from a Cabinet committee that showed he had argued unsuccessfully that the capital should go into the most severe level, Tier 3.
A total of 2,697 deaths in England and Wales in the week to November 20 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, said the Office for National Statistics, marking the highest number of such fatalities since May. One in five death certificates cited Covid-19, up nine per cent in a week.
Tory rebels dug their heels in this morning. Ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told LBC that an impact assessment published by the Government appeared to be “a kind of cut and paste” job.

Mr Gove said the new system of tiered controls for England were necessary to prevent infections rising. “There are some who say that the current tiering system is too strict,” he told BBC Breakfast. “It’s necessary to keep the infection rate down … so people can be together at Christmas.”

But Mr Gove’s answers on policy details caused confusion.

He denied that the Government was examining the idea of a “vaccine passport” to give people greater access to hospitality and entertainment venues in future. “I certainly am not planning to introduce any vaccine passports and I don’t know anyone else in Government [who is],” he said.

That seemed to contradict Mr Zahawi who said the Government was “looking at the technology” so people could show that they had a Covid-19 vaccine.

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