Boris Johnson faces a potentially significant Commons revolt over his new system of coronavirus tiers after lockdown ends, with a series of Tory MPs pledging to vote against measures they said were not justified and lacked public support.
Spooked by the prospect of a mass rebellion over measures due to come into force overnight, all Conservative MPs were summoned to a virtual meeting with Johnson, and the chief whip, Mark Spencer, prior to Tuesday evening’s vote.
While some Tory backbenchers who have previously supported Covid measures said they were opposed to the system of regional tiers across England, others looked set to fall in line, limiting the scale of the revolt.
With Labour set to abstain, the government will almost inevitably win. However, it would be embarrassing for Johnson to need to rely on the Labour abstention for the new rules to pass.
Opening the seven-hour debate, Johnson said the country just needed to “hold our nerve” for a few more months before the likely mass deployment of vaccines.
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.
He offered no new concessions except a £1,000 one-off payment to pubs forced to close because they do not serve food, which is a requirement to sell drink-in alcohol under tier 2 rules.
“All we need to do now is to hold our nerve, until these vaccines are within our grasp, and indeed being injected into our arms,” Johnson said, in a speech peppered with hostile interventions from his own MPs.
The tiers will come into force when the current England-wide lockdown ends on Wednesday, with about 99% of the country put into the top two tiers, meaning significant restrictions on household mixing and on hospitality businesses.
There was, Johnson said, “a compelling case” to keep a tiered system of restrictions across England, insisting this did nonetheless represent a loosening of rules.
But a number of Conservative 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 series 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 promoted “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.”
But one leading member of the new Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs said they would now support the government. Harriet Baldwin, a former foreign office minister, said she had been reassured by guarantees including a future review of the measures.
Responding for Labour, Keir Starmer said the party recognised the need for continued restrictions. The leader of the opposition added: “But 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.”