Leadership challengers begin to stir as Boris Johnson faces biggest rebellion yet

·4 min read
Boris Johnson is facing a rough ride before recess - UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Boris Johnson is facing a rough ride before recess - UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Boris Johnson has been warned that he faces the biggest rebellion of his premiership over new Covid restrictions, as Tory MPs insist there is "no justification for these restrictions upon liberty".

By Thursday night, almost 30 backbenchers had condemned the latest Plan B rules and indicated their intention to join a revolt when the measures are put to a vote next Tuesday.

Their numbers are expected to grow in coming days – and anger was not confined to the back benches, with predictions rife that ministers may quit as the backlash grows.

Wider questions about Mr Johnson's leadership have begun to arise during a week of turmoil for Number 10.

In recent days, two Tory MPs representing "Red Wall" seats told a meeting of colleagues they were thinking about sending letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to Sir Graham Brady, the 1922 committee chairman, The Telegraph understands.

Ahead of a vote on the new Covid rules next week, Downing Street sought to try and dampen the Tory rebellion by announcing on Thursday that they will be reviewed on Jan 5 and will automatically expire on Jan 26.

It comes after John Redwood, a former Cabinet minister, said he expected "a record number of Conservative MPs to vote against these latest restrictions", writing on Twitter: "Many more this time round do not think a good case has been made."

The biggest backbench revolt Mr Johnson has suffered since his arrival in Downing Street came last December, when 54 Tory MPs voted against the tiered system of Covid restrictions.

However, the prospect of a bigger revolt looms, with rebels joined by Conservative MPs who have previously supported the Government's Covid policy.

Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory lockdown sceptics, told The Telegraph: "Quite clearly, there's a large amount of disquiet on the back benches – and among people who haven't previously been unhappy."

There was "definitely an increase" in the number of Conservatives concerned about the issue, he added. It is understood membership of the Covid Recovery Group has grown in the past 24 hours, with Tories asking to be added to its WhatsApp group.

Mr Harper, a former chief whip, also raised fears that the Government's credibility on Covid rules had been undermined by allegations of No 10 staffers attending a rules-breaching party on Dec 18 last year, which is now being investigated by the Cabinet Secretary.

Why should Britons "listen to the Prime Minister's instructions to follow the rules when people inside Number 10 Downing Street don't do so?", Mr Harper asked in the Commons.

Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, urged his colleagues to rebel and said it was "vital that the maximum number of Conservative MPs vote against 'Plan B', whatever our useless Opposition do".

Labour has already indicated it will support the new rules, meaning they are likely to pass, but a major rebellion next Tuesday has also been forecast by Tory MP Greg Smith.

He warned: "There will be a lot of Conservative backbenchers in the 'no' lobby and it would not surprise me if we started to see some of the payroll peeling off, particularly on the vaccine passports." He also raised the prospect of mass resignations among the ranks of junior ministers and parliamentary aides.

Mr Johnson announced a plan for all nightclubs and unseated indoor venues with a capacity of 500 people or more to require a Covid passport from next Wednesday. That means people will have to show proof of two vaccine doses or a negative test, and has been the most controversial aspect of the new restrictions announced this week.

Tory MP Simon Jupp described Covid passports as "divisive and discriminatory" and wrote on social media: "They do not stop the spread of Covid." Ben Bradley, a "Red Wall" MP, called them "ineffective and discriminatory".

Outside the Commons, the former MP Paul Goodman, now a commentator, warned that "a vote of no confidence in Johnson has suddenly become more likely than not".

Mr Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, said in an opinion article that it is "suddenly more likely than not that another Conservative MP will lead his party into the next election".

He said it was likely that "ministers' authority to manage Covid restrictions is shot" in the wake of the debacle over the No 10 party, compounding other issues besieging Mr Johnson.

On Thursday night, reports emerged claiming that rival leadership contenders to Mr Johnson were on manoeuvres. MPs claimed that backers of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, were attempting to bolster support for potential future candidacies.

Mr Johnson had justified rolling out the new restrictions by appealing to evidence that omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, with scientific estimates suggesting there could be one million cases by the end of the month.