UK's Johnson riles angry Tory MPs with vote on virus curbs

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing potentially the largest backlash from within his own ranks since he won an emphatic election victory in December 2019, putting him under further pressure after a string of recent scandals.

FILE: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: AFP

LONDON - The British government on Tuesday urged its own MPs not to rebel against new coronavirus restrictions, insisting the country was in a race to prevent the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spiralling out of control.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing potentially the largest backlash from within his own ranks since he won an emphatic election victory in December 2019, putting him under further pressure after a string of recent scandals.

Tory opponents are against the government's new rules on mask-wearing, testing, self-isolation and vaccine passes, warning they undermine public freedoms.

At least 60 Conservative MPs - possibly more - are reported to be set to rebel over the restrictions at a series of votes to make them law.

Even with an 80-seat majority, that has forced the government to turn to the main opposition Labour party, which supports the package, to push the votes through.

Opening the debate in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Omicron was "a grave threat" and even though hospital admissions were low, action was needed.

"They are measures that I think the situation demands, because when the facts change, our response must change too," he said.

"There really is no time to lose," Javid added, highlighting that scientists have predicted the true figure of those already infected in Britain could be as high as 200,000 a day.

But he confirmed that 11 countries, most of them in southern Africa, would be taken off the UK's so-called travel red list - barring most arrivals - as it was now "less effective" in stopping the spread.

SLEAZE AND SCANDAL

Johnson, who has warned of a looming "tidal wave" of Omicron cases that could overwhelm hospitals, on Monday said at least one person had died after contracting it.

Hardline Tory MPs, though, accuse Johnson and his ministers of enforcing "disproportionate" curbs based on incomplete evidence.

One MP went so far as to compare the introduction of vaccine passes in certain settings to Nazi Germany, triggering protests from Jewish groups.

Johnson loyalists have played down talk of scores of Tory rebels at the votes, which are expected from 1830 GMT.

The situation stands in stark contrast to previous parliamentary votes, which effectively rubber-stamped Covid rules, and could not come at a worse time for Johnson.

The 57-year-old swept to power on a wave of popular support for his pledge to enforce Britain's departure from the European Union.

But he has seen support plummet in opinion polls in recent weeks, and faced open calls to quit because of reports that he and staff broke coronavirus rules last Christmas.

Alleged parties at Downing Street and other government departments, while the public at large were subject to strict rules banning gatherings, have led to charges of double standards.

A series of other scandals and sleaze allegations have prompted some commentators to predict a possible internal party vote of no confidence in Johnson's leadership.

Just as he insisted no social distancing rules were broken, his party was last week fined for failing to declare who paid for a lavish makeover of his Downing Street flat.

That added to claims of cronyism and corruption after reports that the government handed wealthy Tory donors plum seats in the unelected House of Lords.

'RUTHLESS'

Johnson caused fury by trying to change parliament's disciplinary rules after a Tory MP was found to have lobbied ministers for two companies that had him on their payrolls.

The MP, Owen Paterson, later quit, forcing a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency on Thursday - the result of which could make Johnson's position even more fragile.

Paterson had a 23,000 majority at the last election in 2019 but a significant cut in that or even a defeat in the Tory safe seat could put Johnson's position in peril.

Political commentator Robin Pettitt said Johnson - a former journalist and London mayor known for his unconventional style - could ride out one or two scandals.

But the cumulative effect, and any fears he has become an electoral liability, may force Tories to act, despite the Brexit champion's overwhelming victory just two years ago.

"The Conservative party have always been very ruthless when it comes to getting rid of leaders that were not working," he told AFP.

The New York Times published an opinion piece on Tuesday saying Johnson's "charm was wearing thin".

"As we watch Mr Johnson's narrative play out, Britain feels like a country put on hold. We don't know whether the prime minister can save himself, let alone Christmas," it said.