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Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions earlier this month. PA
UK Politics

Boris Johnson to face MPs following massive revolt against Covid-19 plans

The UK prime minister goes to the Commons today after dozens of Tory MPs delivered a blow to his authority.

UK PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson will face the parliament following a massive revolt over his Covid-19 plans which has left questions over his authority.

Johnson is under intense pressure after 100 backbenchers defied him on the issue which has come to define his leadership – the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ahead of the North Shropshire by-election tomorrow, which will be seen as another test of his leadership, Johnson will hope for a visible show of support from Tory MPs in the final Prime Minister’s Questions session of the year.

The scale of the rebellion – the biggest suffered by Johnson – came as a surprise to the Tory leadership and followed a personal appeal by the prime minister to his MPs at a meeting just an hour before the vote.

Nearly a third of his MPs voted against the introduction of mandatory Covid passes in nightclubs and large venues, with many saying they were unhappy about the way Johnson was leading the country and his party.

The unrest on the Tory benches could also make it politically harder for the UK government to introduce new restrictions in England if the Omicron wave of coronavirus proves as dangerous as Johnson’s scientific advisers fear.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he believes that no further measures will be required before Christmas.

The Commons rises for its Christmas break tomorrow but Shapps said Parliament would be recalled if it was decided that further restrictions are needed.

“We have got in place now the measures that we believe will see us through to the new year,” Shapps told BBC Breakfast.

“If we did need to do anything else, Parliament would be recalled too in order to vote on doing that, so it won’t just be an automated thing.”

He insisted that Johnson’s authority has not been damaged despite the revolt, which saw MPs ranging from veteran former Cabinet ministers to newly elected Louie French defy the whip.

Shapps told LBC: “In terms of his authority, I saw the Prime Minister on Sunday night asking the country to get the booster jab and yesterday walked past huge queues around the block of people responding to the Prime Minister’s plea.”

But in parliament, 126 MPs voted against regulations to make Covid passes – known by critics as vaccine passports despite also allowing for a test result to be included – mandatory in nightclubs and other large venues, with fines for establishments that refused or those who faked the documentation.

This included 98 Conservatives, according to Parliament’s division list, but rebel ringleader Steve Baker said he believed there was another Tory who defied the whip, plus two tellers for the noes.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Tories sceptical about restrictions, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that Johnson “should act differently” now.

“Instead of the Prime Minister making a late-night address on Sunday and scaring many people witless, a better thing to do would have been to come to the House of Commons on Monday to set out in detail the advice that he’s received, the things that he thinks needs to happen as a result, and allow Members of Parliament to ask questions and then for him to answer them.

“So what I’m calling for is for him to change how he operates.”

The measures still passed comfortably, as Labour supported the government in the vote.

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Boris Johnson is too weak to lead. The public is safer thanks to Labour putting people’s health before party politics.

“The Prime Minister needs to take a long, hard look at himself and ask whether he has the authority to take this country through the pandemic.”

The message from Tory MPs comes as many are still angry over the revelations of alleged parties and gatherings held in Downing Street and elsewhere during lockdown restrictions, as well as longer held resentment about the government’s handling of the standards row involving former minister Owen Paterson which led to tomorrow’s by-election.

Last night, a photograph emerged in the Daily Mirror of a previously reported party held by Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s campaign team on December 14 last year.

Bailey quit as head of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee ahead of the publication of the photograph.

Shapps told Today “that scene is absolutely unacceptable” and “that was not authorised by the Conservative Party”.

The Mirror also reported No 10 staff who stayed in Downing Street to take part in a Christmas quiz on December 15 were told to “go out the back” after the event.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has been asked to investigate, and could report back as early as this week.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Given there is an ongoing review, it would be inappropriate to comment while that is ongoing.”

But the Liberal Democrats, who say they are now “neck and neck” with the Tories in the North Shropshire poll, said the various scandals would hit the party – which previously enjoyed a nearly 23,000 majority in the seat – at the ballot box.

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