UK MPs fire warning shot at Johnson in COVID vote

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday faced intense pressure after nearly 100 MPs from his party broke ranks and voted against new coronavirus restrictions.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to update the nation on the COVID-19 booster vaccine programme in Downing Street in central London on 12 December 2021. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/POOL/AFP

LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday faced intense pressure after nearly 100 MPs from his party broke ranks and voted against new coronavirus restrictions.

Even though the measures were passed, the scale of the rebellion from all sections of Johnson's ruling Conservatives was a very public shot across the bows.

"It was a very clear message that colleagues are not happy with how the government is operating at the moment," Mark Harper, who served as a parliamentary enforcer for former Conservative PM Theresa May, told Times Radio.

May faced an ever bigger rebellion - against her Brexit deal - that led to an internal vote of no confidence. She then quit.

Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said after Tuesday's votes that Johnson had to be "in some danger", despite securing the party an 80-seat majority in the last election.

"He's got to realise that, because if he doesn't he'll be in much bigger danger," Clifton-Brown told Sky News, predicting that Johnson could face a leadership challenge in the new year if he failed to listen to his party more.

MOUNTING SCANDALS

The popularity of Johnson and his party has taken a battering in recent weeks after a series of scandals.

But it could get worse if the Conservatives lose a by-election in a safe seat on Thursday.

Many people in the North Shropshire constituency in central England said they would vote on Johnson's recent record, just two years after his thumping general election victory on a pledge to "Get Brexit Done".

"This man is not fit to be prime minister," Garry Churchill, 71, a voter in the constituency, told AFP. "I can't imagine why people would vote for the Conservative candidate in this by-election."

The by-election was prompted by the resignation of Conservative MP Owen Paterson over breaches of parliamentary lobbying rules.

Johnson caused outrage by trying to change parliament's disciplinary procedure to prevent Paterson serving a 30-day suspension and was forced into an embarrassing U-turn.

He is also facing claims of dodgy dealing after an electoral watchdog fined the Conservatives for failing to declare who paid for a lavish decoration of his flat.

That compounded accusations of cronyism following reports that wealthy party donors were given plum seats in the upper House of Lords.

'CRY OF PAIN'

Johnson's overall handling of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, however, has come under the most scrutiny, with 146,000 deaths and high infection rates.

Since the Omicron variant of the virus was first identified, Johnson has sought to prevent its spread and protect health services from being overwhelmed.

But public health messaging and compliance have been undermined by claims government staff held parties last Christmas, despite telling the public to cancel theirs.

For many Conservative MPs, the new measures against Omicron, particularly vaccine passes for nightclubs and sports venues, were an unacceptable assault on public freedoms.

Charles Walker of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs said his colleagues were "putting a marker down" by voting against the government.

"It was a cry of pain from the Conservative Party," he told the BBC.

Awkwardly for a government with such a large majority, Johnson had to rely on the support of the main opposition Labour party on Tuesday.

Labour leader Keir Starmer called Johnson's loss of support "a very significant blow for him".

"The prime minister needs to take a long, hard look at himself and ask himself whether he has the authority to take this country through the pandemic," he said.