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1 December 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 12:11pm

The wrangling over Covid-19 tiers is at least improving a bad situation

As Tory MPs prepare to rebel and Labour plans to abstain, the government is being forced to provide greater economic support.

By Ailbhe Rea

The government faces another tricky day in parliament, as MPs vote on new tiered coronavirus restrictions for England. Conservative MPs are expected to rebel in significant numbers against the measures, but with Labour abstaining (and papering over its own divisions over the restrictions) they are still likely to pass. 

The thing most MPs and, indeed, all sensible people can agree on is that this is not what an ideal government coronavirus strategy would look like at this late stage in our response. The politicians advocating opening up for the sake of the economy and locking down tighter to maintain control of cases are actually on the same page as to the ideal Plan A: with an effective test, trace and isolate system, cases would be low and the economy would be able to function largely unaffected.

But without that in place, there is more disagreement over Plan B: while some want to open up to save the economy, or give much more generous economic support, others have fears that the tiered restrictions won’t be enough to keep a lid on cases, especially teamed with the further easing of restrictions across the UK over Christmas.

[see also: How fair are the new Covid-19 tiers?]

Much of the analysis has focused on whether the rebellion today portends a government defeat on the same issue come January, but that remains unlikely. Labour may be abstaining today, but it has never voted against coronavirus restrictions, and would be highly unlikely ever to vote with Conservative rebels to defeat the government on this issue, given that Labour and Tory rebels tend to be coming at the tiered restrictions from opposite directions.

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Rather, the discontent over the tiered restrictions has, to some extent, finessed the Plan B that nobody really wanted. From their different directions, Labour and Conservative objections have managed to secure more support for businesses, while the longstanding criticism from both sides of the pre-lockdown tiers has produced an imperfect, but improved, approach compared with the last time. It isn’t as exciting as a big rebellion, and deep concerns remain on all sides, but the parliamentary system is slowly chiselling away at the government’s plan in order to make the best of (or, at least, to slightly improve) a bad situation.

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[see also: The Conservative discontent over tiers is a problem of Boris Johnson’s own making]