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U.K. Labour May Back Tory Rebels Over Johnson’s Covid Powers

Alex Morales and Emily Ashton
·3-min read
U.K. Labour May Back Tory Rebels Over Johnson’s Covid Powers
U.K. Labour May Back Tory Rebels Over Johnson’s Covid Powers

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party is likely to back a bid by Conservative rebels to curb Boris Johnson’s emergency coronavirus powers, increasing pressure on the premier to back down or risk a damaging parliamentary defeat.

The government’s pandemic legislation is up for review on Sept. 30, and at least 40 Tories have put their names to an amendment that would give Parliament more of a say over measures to tackle the virus. In theory, that could be enough to overturn Johnson’s 78-seat majority -- if the opposition parties vote for it.

On Friday, there were signs the government is seeking a compromise, with both rebels and Johnson’s office suggesting discussions are ongoing.

“We understand MPs and their constituents will be concerned about coronavirus, that is why we continue to work closely with MPs to ensure they are able to hold the government to account,” a spokesman for the prime minister said in a statement.

The government has relied on sweeping powers to enforce restrictions as it tries to contain Covid-19, which is again spreading rapidly across the U.K. The proposed amendment is a sign of growing discontent among predominantly libertarian Tories about the stringency of restrictions put on the British public.

If the amendment goes to a vote, Labour is likely to support it because a growing number of its MPs are uncomfortable with the government rolling out new restrictions without warning, according to a party official, who asked not to be named because the position is not formalized.

An official for the Scottish National Party, who also asked not to be named, said the issue is still under internal consideration.

Though the parliamentary math is complicated by the absence of Sinn Fein MPs and the presence of the non-voting speaker and his deputies, Labour’s support would make the numbers start to look uncomfortable for Johnson.

Climbdown?

That’s why the Labour official expects the government to compromise with Tory lawmakers to head off the rebellion, rather than risk a vote. Two Tories familiar with the matter said talks between the rebels and the government are ongoing to resolve the matter.

This week Steve Baker, a Tory MP, asked Johnson in the House of Commons to “please consider whether some innovative thinking can be applied to make sure that the authority of this house is brought to bear on these measures in advance, so that the public can have confidence that their representatives are authorizing the use of law to constrain their freedom?”

Johnson gave a conciliatory reply, saying “there should be a proper debate of these issues in Parliament.”

If the amendment is passed, it would mean ministers could only implement major new measures to combat the pandemic once Parliament has been given the chance to “debate and vote upon” them.

Senior Tories

Its main sponsor is the influential Tory Graham Brady. Other signatories include Damian Green, who served as former Prime Minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy, as well as the opposition Labour Party’s former deputy leader, Harriet Harman.

In a sign of how the politics may play out next week, the wording of the amendment already contains an element of compromise: Parliament should be given a vote “as far as is reasonably practicable,” it says.

(Updates with statement from Johnson’s office in fourth paragraph)

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