Boris Johnson suffered his worst Commons rebellion tonight as 54 Conservative MPs opposed the government’s new coronavirus tiers despite the prime minister pleading with them as they cast their votes.
Johnson was forced to rely on Labour’s abstention from the vote to avoid defeat on a tightened system of measures that will plunge 99% of England into the strictest tiers from Wednesday.
The blow to his authority came despite the prime minister making “exhortions” to MPs to back the government even during the voting. Johnson was standing in the spot in the chamber by the voting lobbies, where MPs would have expected to see the government chief whip, alongside health secretary Matt Hancock.
One MP said Tories headed “sheepishly” past him towards the No lobby. “They were literally pleading with MPs,” an observer said.
The measures passed by 291 votes to 78, and come into immediate force as England emerges from a four-week lockdown. Johnson was opposed by 54 of his own MPs – 52 voting against plus two tellers – while 17 Tories did not vote or abstained. In Labour, 15 rebels voted against, as did former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is suspended from the parliamentary party.
More than 40% of people will be in tier 3, meaning the closure of pubs and restaurants, while households will be banned from social mixing indoors in nearly all of the country.
It comes as the UK’s total Covid death toll passed 75,000, according to a tally of all fatalities that mention the disease on death certificates, though case numbers have fallen significantly.
The number of rebels in Tuesday’s vote fell short of predictions of up to 70 rebels, but far exceeded the 34 who voted in November against the second lockdown, and the 44 who opposed the government in a largely symbolic vote on the now-abandoned 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants. Following the vote, a government spokesman said it would “work with MPs who have expressed concerns in recent days”.
On a difficult day for Johnson, a six-hour Commons debate was punctuated by dozens of Tory MPs complaining that the new tiers are arbitrary, poorly applied and risked losing public support for efforts to control Covid.
In response, Johnson joined a virtual call with all Tory MPs called by the chief whip, Mark Spencer, where he implored them to support the government.
With a series of MPs complaining that the county-level demarcation for tiers is too broad, Johnson also promised the approach would be “as granular as possible as we go forward”, though no imminent change is expected.
In the only other concession, the prime minister used his opening speech to announce a £1,000 one-off payment to pubs which do not serve food in the top two tiers of restrictions.
Addressing his MPs’ concerns, the prime minister said he accepted many people felt they had been unfairly put under higher-than-necessary rules, often tighter than those in place before the four-week lockdown. But, he said, the country needed to “hold our nerve” for a few more months before the likely mass deployment of vaccines.
A number of Tory MPs responded to the speech by telling Johnson they could not support his plan, including some who voted for the four-week lockdown in November.
Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general, said he was voting against the government “for the first time in 10 years on a matter of policy”.
Wright, whose Kenilworth constituency has been placedalong with the rest of Warwickshire, into tier 3, where all indoor household mixing is barred and pubs and restaurants can only operate as takeaways, was among a a number of MPs to call for the restrictions to be delineated at smaller geographical levels.
The former business secretary Andrea Leadsom, who backed the second lockdown, said she had not been swayed by a government analysis of the costs and benefits of Covid restrictions, released on Monday.
She said: “I want to support my government and my prime minister in the lobby this evening, but I can’t and won’t inflict deliberate harm on my constituency unless I can see for myself that to do nothing would be worse.”
Damian Green, the Ashford MP who was Theresa May’s deputy, and also supported the lockdown, said the decision to put Kent in tier 3 had prompted “the most angry emails over a weekend since the Dominic Cummings trip to Barnard Castle”.
The tier system would not win proper public support, Green argued. “I very much hope the government will come forward with some that do reach that public assent, but these proposals, I’m afraid, don’t achieve that, so I’ll be voting against them.”
The former defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, made a similar warning: “I am worried this government might be losing that consent if it doesn’t work with the country and with parliament in a stronger way.”
Closing the debate for the government, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, took a deeply personal approach, telling MPs his step-grandfather died in November from Covid, and appearing emotional as he thanked NHS staff who cared for him. He said: “In my family, as in so many others, we’ve lost a loving husband, a father, a grandfather to this awful disease.”
Labour’s decision to abstain was derided by Johnson in his opening speech. In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, the PM referred to Keir Starmer as an “invertebrate” for this choice.
But in his speech, the Labour leader said that while he recognised the need for continued restrictions, “I am far from convinced by what the prime minister has said today. In particular, the economic package is nowhere near sufficient to support the communities most affected.”
Listing previous Covid measures, Starmer said Johnson had “a record of overpromising and underdelivering” and was not being honest about what may lie ahead.
“I accept the case for restrictions. We will not stand in the way of these regulations,” he said. “But I’m not going to stand here and pretend, as the prime minister does, that this is going to be the plan that will solve it all – vote for this, and it will all be fine through to Easter. That is not going to happen, and nobody should vote on that basis today.”