Boris Johnson has just suffered a shock defeat in the North Shropshire by-election. Helen Morgan won with an astounding 34% swing to the Liberal Democrats, in what had been a safe Conservative seat for 200 years. Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said Johnson was on “last orders”.
This blow to the prime minister follows hard on the heels of a devastating rebellion by his own backbenchers, 99 of whom voted against the introduction of Covid passes in England, with 35 Tory abstentions. The legislation was only passed thanks to Labour votes (369 to 126 in total). Sixty-one Tory MPs also voted against compulsory vaccinations for NHS workers and 40 against the re-introduction of mask wearing on public transport and in shops. All these measures have been in place for months in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Scandal after scandal
The Owen Paterson affair is barely lukewarm when a succession of scandals has come tumbling into the news – or tumbling back in some cases – leading to increasing unhappiness among Tory MPs as well as the general public.
There was the evacuation chaos from Afghanistan.
And the Downing Street flat redecoration and how much Johnson knew about who paid for it.
And of course, the Downing Street party and other gatherings that supposedly “never happened” last Christmas, when the rest of the country was under severe Covid restrictions. Although Johnson claimed that he “broke no rules”, the leak of the video of Downing Street staff made the event undeniable. Public anger has not been as great since Dominic Cummings drove to Barnard Castle last year.
Plan B has finally been set in motion in England, months after the other UK nations put the same measures in place, because of the rapid spread of the new Covid variant, Omicron. This, as some suggest, may have been a cover for the furore about the Christmas parties. But it has created an uproar of its own, with hard-right backbenchers like Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, asserting that this is a step too far and society was “heading towards hell”. Even more strongly, Marcus Fysh likened the Covid restrictions to “Nazi Germany”. The long queues to get Covid boosters in recent days indicate they are out of step with the public on this.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the vote was “a very significant blow to the already damaged authority of the prime minister”.
Losing Tory support
The massive Tory vote against Covid passes is just one indication of how Tory backbench support for Boris Johnson is waning, even among some Sussex Conservative MPs, usually loyal to the PM.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) was one of the local MPs who voted against the new restrictions, saying, “We cannot head for the hills with kneejerk reactions every time a new variant comes along.”
Henry Smith (Crawley) and Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) also voted against the measure, with Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) and Jeremy Quin (Horsham) abstaining.
Sussex MPs’ recent voting patterns also show some growing unhappiness with Tory legislation. Four local Tory MPs recently abstained on the social care bill: Tim Loughton, Nusrat Ghani and Jeremy Quin again, plus Peter Bottomley (Worthing West); 18 other Tory MPs voted against the bill.
Four local MPs also abstained on the Leadsom amendment, which would have overturned the Owen Paterson judgement: Henry Smith and Peter Bottomley again, Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) and Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Down); the rest all voted for the amendment.
Nusrat Ghani, MP for Wealden in East Sussex since 2015, has been a vocal critic of the government in recent weeks. After the Foreign Office whistleblower’s searing account of the chaos around the Afghanistan evacuation process was published, she wrote an emotional account of how she and her local team gathered information on women at risk, working all hours day and night, only for the Foreign Office to lose or fail to answer their emails. She also refused to express support for Boris Johnson on the Today programme (10 December). A member of the Covid Recovery Group, it is not surprising that she voted against Covid passes too.
Curbs on our liberties
Whilst everyone was raging about new restrictions or about last year’s parties, on 8 December the government sneaked through a third vote on the iniquitous Nationality and Borders Bill. Two local Tory MPs abstained again: Huw Merriman and Caroline Ansell.
Dangerous last-minute amendments were also slipped into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill recently, which will curtail the right to protest. Taken with attacks on the Electoral Commission and judicial reviews, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot described this as “a vaguely democratic nation sliding towards autocracy”.
Dominic Raab’s plans to replace human rights legislation with a new Bill of Rights is the most dangerous change of all, as it would allow judges to overturn rulings from the European Court of Human Rights.
Tory MPs should be opposing this legislation as an attack on civil liberties, rather than voting against reasonable health measures to curb Covid.
And after the calamitous by-election defeat, they may well be looking for a new leader. According to Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 committee, a leadership challenge is “on the cards”, unless the PM delivers a “major change in the way he does things”.