As the nation stood on the cusp of exiting its second lockdown Parliament voted yesterday on the new ‘tier system’ that will govern our lives over the next few months. Thanks to a series of scientific breakthroughs resulting in a number of vaccines, the route out of the COVID crisis can be glimpsed in the distance. However, with several months to go, MPs were asked to vote on continued restrictions, through a revised tier system, intended to keep the incidence of the disease low until, as Boris Johnson put it, the “scientific cavalry” arrives.

Under the new rules areas of the nation will be split into three tiers of differing restrictions. These will continue to restrict people’s movements and interactions in both business and social activities and, for people living and working in tier 3 (the highest), it will not feel much different to lockdown.

The run-up to yesterday’s debate saw high profile rows between the Government and several, prominent Conservative MPs about the new restrictions. The Government has tried to mollify concerns through proposals for a review of the restrictions and the promise of a new Commons vote on them in early February. Late on Monday, in response to pressure from Tory backbenchers, the Government published an Analysis of the health, economic and social effects of COVID-19 and the approach to tiering. This was intended to demonstrate that, in shaping the new tiers, the Government had considered the wider effects of lockdown as well as the need to tackle the virus. While this report was detailed critics pointed out that it contained little that was new and felt it showed the Government had not given sufficient consideration to the impact on health and the economy of ongoing restrictions.

Although the Government’s proposals were approved by the Commons yesterday by 291 votes to 78, the debate saw many Conservatives break ranks to speak and vote against the Government. As well as the expected attacks from the opposition parties the Prime Minister also found his proposals subject to criticism from MPs representing all the different wings of his Party. The days of Tory Leavers vs Tory Remainers, which saw Boris Johnson ride to the premiership on the wave of support from a new Conservative coalition, now seem distant. Yesterday, objections from Conservative MPs resulted in 55 of them defying the whip and voting against the new tiers. Attacks fell into a number of categories but, crucially, pointed to the fact that many Tory MPs no longer have faith in the Government’s handling of the crisis. Examples were:

  • Concerns about how the Government interprets data when deciding which areas fall into which tier. Many Tory MPs pointed to inconsistencies such as Damian Green MP’s bemusement as to why his constituency (Ashford in Kent) “entered lockdown in tier 2 but is exiting in tier 3”. Given the significant effect of previous lockdowns and restrictions on the nation’s businesses, many Tory MPs felt that much greater clarity is needed about how the Government is making its decisions.
  • Scepticism about the Government’s claims of pressure on the NHS and the anticipated impact of the virus more generally. David Davis, former Brexit Minister, drew on a number of examples such as the high availability of critical care beds. More generally, many Tory MPs have been very unhappy at the way that Professor Chris Whitty (the Chief Medical Officer) and Sir Patrick Vallance (the Chief Scientific Adviser) made the case for the second lockdown with projections that, in retrospect, looked inflated.
  • Displeasure from MPs like Sir Desmond Swayne, who felt that Mr Johnson had not made a sufficiently clear case for the continued disruption to people’s freedoms.

Significantly, attacks on the tiers policy came from Brexiteers, One Nation Tories and libertarians – including Tory MPs’ ‘shop steward’, Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee. Tory MPs’ objections were the culmination of many months’-worth of growing frustration at a lack of strategic direction from the Government, problems with Dominic Cummings and a series of u-turns resulting from poor management and ‘optimism bias’.

The Labour Party’s instructions to its MPs were to abstain from the vote – taking the calculated risk that, while they would be accused of ducking a controversial decision, Tory MPs would be more likely to rebel if they felt there was no chance of the Government losing the vote. Sir Kier Starmer, the Labour Leader, levelled four charges at the Prime Minister, all designed to build on his earlier attacks on the Government’s competence and build up a picture of a Prime Minister who is not up to leading the nation in a crisis:

  • Frequent u-turns and changes of approach: Sir Kier pointed to several changes in just a few months from the ‘Whack-a-mole’ announcement of 10 June, to the Rule of 6 announcement in mid-September, to the tier system in mid-October and the second lockdown in early November.
  • Honesty: He contended that the Prime Minister has not levelled with people. In an attempt to avoid a Tory rebellion he had tinkered with the tier system when, Sir Kier claimed, the truth was that tier 2 is probably not going to be enough to keep the R rate down – increasing the risk of lockdown no. 3.
  • Indecision and ducking hard choices: The risks that the nation faces today are higher because the Prime Minister did not take the necessary decisions earlier, such as Labour’s call for a lockdown in the early-Autumn.
  • Inadequate economic support: He pointed to several examples of inadequate economic support for people who are asked to self-isolate, inadequate support for businesses and the lack of cover for people who are self-employed. On this point Labour, like many Conservative MPs, showed great concern about the impact of the lockdown and then the new tiers on the hospitality industry. As well as attacking Rishi Sunak’s credibility he was seeking to reclaim Labour’s position as the Party that sticks up for people on low pay and those who are struggling – credentials that have been at risk from the Government’s levelling-up agenda and the huge sums spent in supporting the economy during COVID.

Despite the Tory rebellion the new tier regulations were approved – allowing them to come into force at the end of the second lockdown. Importantly, the number of Tory rebels, 55, was such that the Government would have been defeated if Labour and other opposition parties had not abstained. Boris Johnson’s overall Commons majority of 80 disappears if 41 of his MPs vote against him. There are other consequences to consider beyond last night’s vote. It is no small step for an MP to defy the Whip and rebel. But once they have done it, got past the shirty letter from the Whips’ office, accepted that their chances of promotion in the next reshuffle have disappeared and received a pat on the back from some supportive colleagues, it is easier to rebel again. The next few months will see the Government grapple with many difficult and sensitive issues including spending cuts, tax rises and Brexit and its job will be that bit harder if the reservoir of goodwill among the Conservative Parliamentary Party is diminished.