Boris Johnson struck a deal with rebels in his Conservative Party over giving the UK Parliament more power to scrutinise new emergency coronavirus laws, in a bid to curb a growing backlash over his handling of the pandemic.
Health secretary Matt Hancock was expected to set out details of the agreement when he introduces a debate on the renewal of existing Covid-19 measuers later on Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The prime minister had been warned that more than 100 of his own members of Parliament were preparing to vote against the government if he refused to compromise — more than double the number needed to defeat him. They had backed an amendment by influential Conservative Graham Brady demanding that new rules must only come into force if Parliament has been given the chance to debate and vote on them first.
House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle did not select the rebel amendment for a vote but there was growing anger in the Tory party over the apparent failure of ministers to consult MPs over local lockdowns and social distancing rules.
The Tory rebellion over the virus measures is symbolic of a wider disquiet over Johnson’s leadership.
Some Conservatives fear he is losing his grip after a summer of u-turns and a succession of missteps in his government’s handling of the pandemic.
The premier’s authority was undermined further when he had to apologise for not knowing the social distancing rules for northeast England. Johnson will attempt to regain control over his coronavirus strategy when he was expected to hold press conference with his key advisers on Wednesday.
Hoyle accused the government of treating Parliament with “contempt” and said he would “give very sympathetic consideration” to applications from lawmakers for urgent questions or emergency debates, which would force ministers to come to Parliament to explain themselves.
Conservative MPs have raised concerns that many serious penalties and criminal offenses related to Covid-19 are only coming to light after they are published.
Former minister Mark Harper said the government is ruling “by decree,” while another prominent Tory David Jones said it was wrong to lay down new laws “by ministerial fiat.” The government had argued that it must be able to act quickly and implement new rules where necessary to contain the virus.
The Commons speaker made it clear that although he could not allow the amendment, the government needed to urgently allow MPs more of a say over Covid rules.
“The way in which the government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,” Hoyle said. “I now look to the government to rebuild trust with this house and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.”
The emergency legislation, which the government has said is necessary to allow it to act quickly to contain the pandemic, was still due to go to a vote in its original form on Wednesday.