12:08, December 23 122 0 theguardian.com

2020-12-23 12:08:03
Scrutiny slippage? Johnson's own MPs blench at lack of vote on tier 4 Covid rules

In the latest of a series of sanguine predictions in recent months, Boris Johnson told the nation this week it could look forward to a “very, very, different world” by Easter thanks to the arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine.

But, for the millions of people plunged into tier 4 restrictions last Sunday, and with other areas to be included at that level from Boxing Day, that will seem a long way off.

To appease Tory backbencher anger about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny on restrictions, the government, in September, committed to giving MPs a vote to approve coronavirus rules before they came into force. But, crucially, there was a caveat giving Downing Street some wriggle room.

“I can confirm to the house that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England, or UK-wide, we will consult parliament,” Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs at the time, adding: “Wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force. But, of course, responding to the virus means that the government must act with speed when required and we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives.”

Map of Covid tiers in England

With parliament rising for recess last Thursday and MPs not due to return until the first week of January – unless recalled to ratify a Brexit deal – there has been no such vote yet to approve tier 4 measures.

Some Tory MPs – many of whom have voted against restrictions in recent months, including more than 50 who rebelled on 1 December to inflict Johnson’s worst Commons revolt – are not happy.

William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, wrote for Conservative Home on Monday, saying: “The plain fact is this. Parliament debated and voted on the original rules that were to be in place to govern Christmas, along with the revamped tier system.

“Parliament should do the same for these new rules and additional tier. This should be welcomed by all, regardless of how they might vote, because it will carry greater legitimacy among the public who sent us to Westminster to be their representatives.”

Two days earlier, Mark Harper, the chair of the CRG, tweeted: “Given [that] the 3 tier system and the initial Christmas household rules were expressly authorised by the House of Commons, these changes must also be put to a vote in the Commons at the earliest opportunity, even if that means a recall of the House.”

Though some Tories have aired grievances over the latest changes, there is arguably a sense, perhaps reflecting concern over the new Covid variant, that the response so far has been relatively muted. That could soon change.

The tier 4 restrictions were made law on Sunday via a statutory instrument (SI), a piece of secondary legislation used to amend an existing act. The legislation was laid before parliament on Monday. The SI must be approved by parliament within 28 sitting days.

Labour would be unlikely to oppose the measures, but the move sets up another showdown between Johnson and his own MPs.

Separately, ahead of the tiered measures being introduced on 2 December, Johnson committed to giving MPs a “sunset” clause for 3 February so they would have a vote on whether the measures would remain in place beyond that date and until the end of March.

While some observers may question Johnson’s buoyant predictions about when the UK might overcome the pandemic, one thing is for sure – there is yet more trouble on the horizon for the prime minister in parliament.