Desperate Matt Hancock hinted at concessions last night as he faced the fury of Tory MPs over plunging the country into a new coronavirus lockdown.
The Health Secretary was repeatedly assailed by MPs as he updated the Commons on the day that another raft of new rules and punishments came into force.
He said restrictions will be imposed on households mixing will be placed on the North East at the request of local authorities.
But senior MPs complained that the government was dodging Parliamentary scrutiny, and had not shown evidence that its curbs were ‘effective’ to tackle the disease.
Some of the Tory rebels were invited to meet Mr Hancock and the Chief Whip yesterday and said last night that progress was being made, reported BBC News.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is set to save Mr Johnson’s blushes by refusing to call a rebel Tory amendment on coronavirus curbs this week – despite the numbers in the mutiny growing.
There are claims that up to 100 are ready to line up behind an amendment tabled by Conservative backbench chief Sir Graham Brady, which would force ministers to get approval in advance before bringing in more restrictions.
However, in spite of the groundswell of support, Sir Lindsay is not expected to allow a vote on the change.
The government has put down a motion to renew its sweeping powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 – which will otherwise lapse.
Rebels have taken the opportunity to add wording that would make further restrictions subject to a vote by MPs.
But accepting the amendment would be out of line with standard Parliamentary procedure on this kind of motion, which is to obtain a ‘clean’ yes or no decision from the House.
Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to a school in Ruislip today) is struggling to quell growing fury from his own MPs over Covid restrictions and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny
In spite of the groundswell of support, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle (pictured right last week) is not expected to allow a vote on the amendment
What is the Tory amendment at the heart of the row?
The Coronavirus Act 2020 required that government holds a vote every six months on whether to continue the sweeping powers it granted.
As a result, ministers have tabled a motion for Wednesday, which merely states that the measures should ‘not expire’.
However, Tory rebels have taken the opportunity to table an amendment pressuring the government to stage a vote on introducing any new lockdown restrictions – something that is not currently required under the law.
The amendment would give approval for maintaining the powers ‘provided Ministers ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that in the exercise of their powers to tackle the pandemic under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and other primary legislation, including for example Part 2A of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, Parliament has an opportunity to debate and to vote upon any secondary legislation with effect in the whole of England or the whole United Kingdom before it comes into effect’.
But Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is highly unlikely to select the amendment.
Normal Commons procedure is to exclude amendments for motions of this nature, so that Parliament can give a clear expression of its will on the subject in hand.
Sir Lindsay has been keen to avoid getting involved in the rows about rule-bending that blighted John Bercow’s final days in the chair, as he was seen as taking sides with Remainers.
One senior MP told MailOnline Sir Graham was marching his troops to the top of the hill, but faced having to march them down again.
‘It is a bit of ”Grand Old Duke of York”,’ they said. ‘If you (allow the vote) you are going back to what the previous Speaker did, and you will end up with the courts deciding.
‘If you don’t believe in it you can vote against it – a straightforward vote.’
So far around 50 MPs have signed the amendment laid down by Sir Graham, chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee, demanding votes before any future curbs on British ‘liberty’ are brought in.
But ringleaders claim the true figure could be closer to 100.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are set to back the amendment, saying it is wrong that new laws are being brought in under emergency powers passed at the start of the pandemic.
That would potentially be enough to overturn the government’s 80-strong majority – with signs that DUP MPs are also set to endorse the change.
A final decision on whether to call the amendment will not be made before Wednesday.
In the Commons this afternoon, Mr Hancock was challenged by a series of Conservatives over why measures were being rushed through.
He refused to commit to staging a vote before any new curbs were brought in, but said: ‘I strongly agree with the need for us in this house to have the appropriate level of scrutiny.
‘We have already, as the PM set out last week, put in place further measures…
‘We are looking at further ways to ensure the house can be properly involved in the process, in advance where possible, and I hope to provide the house with further details soon and I will take up the invitation to have a further meeting with (Sir Graham), with whom I have already met to discuss this issue, to see what further progress can be made.’
Former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling said he understood Mr Hancock must take decisions quickly.
‘But when it comes to new national measures, and many of us represent areas where the incidence of the virus remains very low, in the southern part of my constituency in that district there were no cases last week,’ he said.
‘Before we embark upon measures that affect everyone, as opposed to firefighting in individual areas, it is really important that this House has the chance to really scrutinise and hold to account and challenge – we know he wants to do the right thing, we want to help him do the right thing.’
Ex chief whip Mark Harped said: ‘It’s not just about scrutiny, it’s about the laws we’re making and the ones that for example came in at midnight tonight, with 12 pages of detailed laws, lots of detail and criminal offences and duties not mentioned when they were set out in a statement last week, including duties on employers, directors and officers with serious criminal penalties, that’s why 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 him to do so by decree.’
Tory Steve Baker, one of the rebel organisers, said: ‘Surely it was possible in eight days to have had the debate that he has called for?’
Mr Hancock replied: ‘The challenge is how to do that and also be able to move at pace and I’d be very happy to talk with him along with others on how to make this happen.
‘I would say however, that in respect to the laws that came into place overnight they set out, I set them out in a statement, in fact the Prime Minister set out many of them in a statement last week and so we have been clear about the policy intent and the question is how we can make sure that we deal with appropriately in the future.’
Conservative former minister John Redwood said: ‘This time around will there be isolation hospitals so that we can control the infection in the hospital sector better and will there be good controls to prevent seepage of people with infection back to care homes?’
Matt Hancock replied in the Commons: ‘The answer to both those questions is yes, we’ve learnt a huge amount about those and put in place improved procedures.’
The revolt comes amid rumours of a growing rift between Mr Johnson and his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, over the economic impact of coronavirus restrictions.
In more worrying signs for the PM today, former minister Simon Clarke – who stepped down earlier this month for personal reasons – has issued a joint statement with other Teeside MPs warning against a ban on households mixing.
They wrote that no more restrictions should be imposed on the area, and pecifically took a swipe at a measure thought to be under serious consideration by the government.
‘A ban on household mixing as winter approaches would in practice condemn thousands of local people to loneliness and isolation – even with mitigating measures in place,’ the statement said.
Yesterday, employers’ group the Confederation of British Industry called upon the Prime Minister to reopen the economy ‘as quickly as we can’.
It comes amid growing anger over Mr Johnson’s continued use of emergency powers to get restrictive Covid-19 laws through the Commons.
Mr Bercow warned him against sidelining Parliament by pushing through laws without a vote or debate.
And Tory MP Steve Baker, who plans to rebel against Mr Johnson if the current Speaker chooses Sir Graham’s amendment for a Commons vote, said Britons were no longer living like free people due to the restrictions.
More than 50 MPs including ex-minister Steve Baker (right) have signed an amendment laid down by Sir Graham Brady (pictured), chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee
Bercow the Brexit blocker’s many moves to thwart the PM
John Bercow repeatedly attracted the fury of Brexiteers in 2019 as he sided with rebel backbenchers trying to thwart a swift Brexit.
January 9: He allows a rebel amendment brought by Dominic Grieve forcing then prime minister Theresa May to come back to the Commons with a revised Brexit plan if her withdrawal agreement failed to pass. The original business motion was put ‘forthwith’, which was previously taken to mean that it should be dealt with without a debate or chance of amendment. The amendment passed by 11 votes and the WA was heavily defeated.
March 18: The Speaker blocks a third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. In a dramatic intervention, he ruled that the EU withdrawal agreement could not be put to a vote again without substantial changes. He gave Downing Street no notice of his announcement, which came just 24 hours before the Prime Minister was expected to ask the Commons to decide on the issue for a third time following two crushing defeats.
March 18: Mr Bercow advises Remainer MPs on how they might use Parliamentary procedure to alter the Brexit deal after it is voted down a second time. He suggests they can use Standing Order 24 to sidestep the Government and push through backbench legislation. Usually SO24 motions should be neutral but he allows binding votes to introduce things like the Benn Act, blocking a No deal Brexit.
August 28: Mr Bercow led a chorus of outrage over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament. The Commons Speaker said he was on holiday with his family and had not been consulted about the move, which he labelled a ‘constitutional outrage’. Mr Bercow said the plan to shut down Parliament from around September 11 until the state opening on October 14 was an ‘offence against the democratic process’.
September 25: He gloats that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament had been ‘expunged’ by a bombshell Supreme Court ruling as he reopened Parliament. Telling MPs ‘welcome back to our place of work’, he spelled out that the suspension triggered by the PM earlier this month had been made void – as legally it never happened. he had vented his fury at the prorogation happening in the first place.
October 21: He blocks Boris Johnson’s latest bid to trigger a vote on his Brexit deal. MPs denied the PM ‘in principle’ approval for his deal over the weekend, instead postponing the showdown and obliging him to ask the EU for an extension. Mr Bercow insisted the ‘meaningful’ vote would break the Commons convention against asking MPs the same question twice in quick succession.
‘We are in an environment where you really can’t know whether you’re a criminal or not with this much law coming into force and changing so fast, and that is why I’ve said this is not a fit environment for free people,’ he said.
‘How do people think that liberty dies? It dies like this with government exercising draconian powers, without parliamentary scrutiny in advance.’
The ex-minister told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘MPs should be sharing in the dreadful burden of decision in these circumstances and not just retrospectively being asked to approve what the Government has done.’
He said there were ‘plenty’ of MPs who would back the amendment, and that he thought it would be selected by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
But Downing Street is equally adamant that the vote will not be called, leaving rebels with only the nuclear option of voting against the Government’s Covid-19 legislation, something they do not think the rebels will do.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has written to MPs urging them not to vote for Sir Graham’s amendment if it is called, however.
He wrote: ‘I believe that the case for keeping these provisions remains strong… they are absolutely necessary to enable governments across the UK to mount an effective response.’
Labour said it is likely to back the amendment if called, shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said.
‘We have some sympathy with the amendment that Graham Brady has tabled but we want to see something that sets out what our amendment sets out, which is more transparency and publishing the data,’ she told Sky News.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also signalled he would vote for it.
Mr Bercow told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: ‘Parliament has been unavoidably constrained by Covid-19 but it should not now avoidably constrain or hamper itself.
‘Debate, scrutiny and votes are the lifeblood of a pluralist system.’
On Saturday, about 15,000 demonstrators turned up to an anti-lockdown protest in central London.
Despite the backlash, a senior government source told The Times ramping up coronavirus restrictions had not been ruled out.
‘The nation and the party wasn’t ready for us to go any further last week,’ they said.
‘There wasn’t a wide enough understanding of how substantial the second wave could be.
‘Unlike the first lockdown, nobody has seen pictures of body bags in Spain or France on the TV yet, which had a very powerful effect. You have to take people with you.
‘Tougher measures on social interaction will have to come though. They’re inevitable in some parts if you look at the numbers.’
The emergency measures could be imposed in Covid-19 hotspots including Merseyside and the northeast as early as this week.
Liverpool recorded 146.3 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people last week, up from 95.8 the week before, while South Tyneside recorded 137.8 cases per 100,000 last week, up from 86.
London could also be placed on a total social lockdown if infection rates continue to rise, with one government figure describing the capital’s fate as ‘in the balance’, The Times reported.
Downing Street hopes to avoid a national social lockdown, with infection rates remaining low in the country’s southwest and southeast outside of London.
Michael Gove is thought to have lined up with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stressing the need for tougher action.
But other Cabinet ministers such as Mr Sunak, Mr Eustice and Home Secretary Priti Patel favour keeping the economy more open.
It comes as new local lockdowns, further restrictions and tough new fines for failing to self-isolate come into force across parts of the UK today.
People across England will be legally required to self-isolate from this week if they test positive for coronavirus or are contacted by the test and trace service.
If they do not they risk being hit with new fines starting at £1,000 and increasing up to £10,000 for repeat offenders or serious breaches.
Police will also be checking compliance in the highest incidence areas and in high-risk groups based on ‘local intelligence’.