National lockdown no. 3 greeted the UK as we tidied away our Christmas decorations and sized up the New Year. On Wednesday, MPs backed the new lockdown by 524 votes to 16 as the Prime Minister warned that the new restrictions could last for three months.
The Commons vote was marked by reduced Conservative opposition (only 12 opposed the measures) compared to December’s debate on the new tier system – where 55 voted against the Prime Minister. The rising infection rates, a daily death toll that has passed 1,000 for the first time since April last year, reports that some hospitals are nearing capacity and concern about the virus’s new strain overcame some Tory MPs’ previous qualms about the impact on people’s liberties and scepticism about the case for restrictions.
MPs approved restrictions lasting until 31 March although the Prime Minister stated that his intention was to use this time to allow a “gradual unwrapping” of lockdown back into local tiers as the incidence of infections reduces and the vaccination programme builds up the nation’s immunity.
A number of Conservative MPs remain unhappy about the impact on their constituents’ liberties. Andrew Rosindell (Con, Romford) felt that the measures “are not proportional” and that he could not justify the restrictions and Sir Graham Brady (Tory MPs’ ‘shop steward’ through his role as Chairman of the 1922 Committee) asked that MPs have the chance to vote on the lockdown again at the end of January. Other Conservative MPs raised concerns about the impact on individuals’ livelihoods and on the retail industry. However, the major topic of discussion during the debate was the impact on schools and opposition MPs sought to exploit the Government’s u-turn on school closures and highlight concerns from their constituents.
For Labour, Sir Kier Starmer, used the opportunity to highlight the failings citing its tardiness in locking down in March last year and problems with track and trace, among others. He also set two political tripwires for the Prime Minister: Challenging him to achieve 14 million doses of the vaccine by mid-February and to drop his plan for a £20 weekly cut to Universal Credit.
As on other recent occasions the Prime Minister looked very unhappy at having to introduce more restrictions; however, the relentless of weight of evidence about the impact of the pandemic on health and NHS capacity persuaded the overwhelming majority of his colleagues to back this latest lockdown.
The new Tory Coalition
With MPs’ ongoing focus on the pandemic it is hard to think of politics beyond COVID 19; however, as the vaccine steadily pushes down the incidence of the virus, ‘politics as usual’ can come out of the deepfreeze. One feature of this Parliament that has not yet been fully tested is the dynamic between the interests of Tory MPs’ constituents in their traditional Home Counties powerbase and their new supporters in the former ‘Red Wall’.
In order to keep his new supporters the Prime Minister needs to ‘splash the cash’ on his levelling up programme, but how will this sit with a party where many MPs support lowering taxes and where the Chancellor wants to bring the budget deficit under control? Other areas of tension have included the response to the Planning White Paper, published in August. Pressure from Tory MPs and councillors in rural southern constituencies resulted in the reallocation of new housing numbers to towns and cities in parts of the Midlands and the North.
The interests of the Conservative Party’s different wings are not easily reconciled – particularly in an era where the nation faces a large debt. Although the pandemic has highlighted his shortcomings the Prime Minister starts 2021 in a stronger position than one might have thought – the Brexit deal has given him a boost and the public has, so far, proven to be forgiving of the Government’s mistakes. While he continues to look like a winner he is still in a strong position to keep his new coalition together.
He has a lot in his 2021 in-tray: A potential reshuffle in the Spring, the local, mayoral and Scottish elections in May (if they happen at all), the SNP’s push for a second independence referendum and the COP26 climate conference. The health of the new Tory coalition will not be making many headlines but it will affect – directly or indirectly – many government measures that affect the property industry such as changes to the planning regime and investment in towns and cities.