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Nearly a year after his thumping general election victory, Boris Johnson is learning the hard way just how fragile even a parliamentary majority of 80 can be.
The 53 Tory MPs (plus two tellers) who voted against their government tonight delivered the biggest rebellion under Johnson so far. Add in some of the 16 or so abstainers and the backbench mutineers would be easily big enough to overturn that majority if they so wished.
In truth, the rebellion was politically variegated within both Tory and Labour ranks. Some hardened Brexiteers (who got a taste for the habit under Theresa May) were joined by Remainers (who got a taste for it under Boris Johnson), just as Labour’s refuseniks were made up of figures as far apart on the spectrum as John Spellar and Richard Burgon.
But what united all of them was a simple, shared belief: you just can’t believe Boris Johnson. Tory rebel ringleader Mark Harper called on the PM after the vote to “end this devastating cycle of repeated restrictions”. And it’s the cycle of lockdown, unlockdown, weak tiers, strong national curbs, tough tiers that for many critics sums up both Johnson’s inconstancy and his incompetence.
At the heart of much of the rebellion was of course the fear that the pub, restaurant and hotel trade will be crippled this winter. Hospitality UK estimated today that 94% of its members will either make a loss or collapse totally even under the new Tier 2 restrictions (where only people from the same household can have a meal or drink).
Few were impressed by the PM’s last-ditch offer of a £1,000 one-off payment to pubs that don’t serve meals. In fact, Johnson undermined his own offer by admitting that the entire hospitality industry had “borne a disproportionate share of the burden” of the pandemic, only to offer a small trinket (less than the price of one keg of beer) to one part of that industry.
Rishi Sunak strangely didn’t stay on the frontbench to hear the PM’s opener, even though his Treasury question time ended shortly beforehand. Maybe that’s because he was miffed at the new pub payment, which he hadn’t been aware of until yesterday and which came just a few days after his spending review had been intended to finalise Covid support.
Some Tory MPs would prefer pubs simply stayed open, rather than got more taxpayers’ cash to stay closed. Yet some seemed to agree with Keir Starmer that if the state mandates that it is going to shut down an entire sector of the economy, it has a responsibility to foot the bill.
And Andy Burnham spoke with more feeling than most when he pointed out his common cause with the Tory rebels. “The government are doing to the country in December what they did to Greater Manchester in October, that is to railroad it into a punishing, underfunded lockdown that will severely damage the hospitality industry,” he said this morning.
Starmer could have added to his theme of government waste by pointing out that the £1,000 per pub won’t be enough to save them, and so will end up trickling down the drain. Add in the huge £22bn cost of a failing test and trace system, at the same time as insufficient cash for sick pay or isolation, and there’s a clear pattern for Labour to hammer home.
Johnson is in some ways finally paying the political price, if not the financial price, of his tiers strategy. And one cost is being exposed as inconsistent. The man who in March said it was “a huge wrench” to take away “the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub” is not so jocular tonight.
Similarly, Tory MPs find it hard to believe new promises that their areas will escape tough tiers through “community testing”, especially as it was over-sold and now will only happen in a handful of areas, and even then not until maybe February. That’s why Starmer’s most powerful point today was to warn Conservatives not to buy the PM’s suggestion that come December 16 (the date of the next tiers review) that things will get better.
The Labour leader declared: “I am telling you what is going to happen in two weeks.. I have no doubt that there will be government members getting up and saying, ’I thought my area was going to drop a tier just before Christmas….” Greater Manchester (and possibly the north east) may indeed drop down a tier in a fortnight, but it’s hard to see many areas following them.
If the PM also somehow manages to betray his MPs on Brexit by caving on fishing rights in coming weeks, maybe some Tories will feel as duped by Johnson as the DUP did last year (though in a delicious irony, it was hardline Brexiteers who most colluded in that particular betrayal).
What should worry No.10 is that every rebellion just eats up a little more of the PM’s political capital each time. Just imagine if in February, Starmer goes nuclear and opts to vote against the renewal of the regulations unless more cash help is provided for hospitality, sick pay or isolation.
Johnson took the risk of pleading personally with his MPs to go into government lobbies tonight, and they ignored him in droves. Like many before them, they’ve learned not to judge him by what he promises, but by what he does. If more of the public start to think you can’t believe a word he says, the real rebellion will have started.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.