Boris Johnson is likely to face a backbench rebellion larger than his parliamentary majority when the House of Commons votes on new measures to tackle the Omicron variant of coronavirus later today.
Conservative MPs – an estimated 70 but possibly as many as 80 – from across the party are poised to vote against the government over the introduction of a “Covid pass”, a new requirement in England to provide proof of either double vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entry to a nightclub, an indoor event of 500 or an outdoor event of 4,000.
Many Conservative MPs are worried about the “slow creep” of ever more draconian restrictions to protect against coronavirus, but the “vaccine passport” plan, even with negative Covid tests permitted, is the real sting. For many Tory MPs, the measure defies belief in allowing individuals to make the best decisions about their health and the health of others, representing what they see as an intrusion into the everyday life of citizens that is unjustified by evidence.
And it is on the question of evidence for vaccine passports that Conservative rebels find common cause, quite unexpectedly, with the Liberal Democrats, who oppose the plan because requiring proof of double vaccination hasn’t proven as effective at curtailing coronavirus outbreaks as requiring negative lateral flow tests at mass gatherings.
The reason the Tory rebellion is so big is precisely because it comes at no cost. With Labour support for the new measures guaranteed, they will inevitably pass, allowing Conservative MPs to signal their practical and ideological opposition to Covid passes without preventing the government from acting.
The rebellion today is a perfect storm of longstanding resistance to the government’s approach to coronavirus, combined with a new collapse of confidence from backbenchers in the direction set by Downing Street. It doesn’t matter in the immediate term but it does in the longer term. The vote today marks a decisive break between the Conservative parliamentary party and the government on coronavirus, just as a new variant takes hold, and a new low for Boris Johnson as his grip on his party becomes weaker and weaker.
[See also: We all know what Boris Johnson’s emergency address was really about – and it wasn’t Covid boosters]