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30 September 2020

Why the Tory rebels can’t win a vote to end Covid-19 lockdowns

The problem for backbenchers is that the opposition parties are all more pro-lockdown than the government.

By Stephen Bush

Is the government facing defeat over the Coronavirus Act? There are more than enough on-the-record Conservative critics of the wide-ranging powers ministers have accrued to bring in new lockdowns and draconian enforcement mechanisms without a parliamentary vote for Graham Brady’s amendment to pass today – that is if the amendment is selected for a vote by Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons Speaker. 

But it is fairly unlikely to be chosen, because the amendment is visibly “out of scope” of the original motion, which is a statutory instrument that can either be voted for or against – and they are treated as unamendable. A good way of understanding what isn’t “in scope” for a bill or statutory instrument is to think of everything the Commons does as a bit like the title of a Friends episode: “The One Which Passes the Withdrawal Agreement into Law”, “The One Which Passes Some Bits of the Withdrawal Agreement out of Law”, “The One Which Cuts the Take-Home Pay of the Working Poor”, that sort of thing.

You can’t amend “The One Which Provides Funds to Clean Energy” to “The One Which Dismantles Nato”. And you can’t amend a statutory instrument – a yes-no proposition – into yes-maybe or no-but propositions. This is partly about preventing parliamentary ambushes (where one side puts down a bill that everyone agrees with and then rushes through controversial changes while critics and would-be rebels are away) and also partly just because it’s the way we’ve always done things.  

However, the number of Conservative signatories on the Brady amendment attests to the growing dismay both about the draconian measures contained in the Coronavirus Act, and the economic cost of continuing lockdowns. That dismay is one reason Downing Street is likely to meet the rebels halfway and grant parliament a greater say over lockdown regulations. But that victory, if it happens, will be a hollow one. The difficulty for Conservative critics of the lockdown is that while they can win parliamentary votes demanding a greater say for parliament, they can’t win votes to end the lockdown: because the opposition parties are all more pro-lockdown than the government. 

[see also: A second lockdown could call last orders on parts of the UK economy]

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