Boris Johnson is facing his first major cabinet revolt, with senior ministers pledging to “resist” a “Plan C” of further Covid-19 restrictions, the Telegraph can disclose.
A Cabinet source warned that, in the absence of data showing the impact of omicron on hospitalisation and death rates, a series of concerned members of Boris Johnson’s top team will block the “slippery slope” of further curbs.
At least six cabinet members are understood to have concerns about the Government’s movement towards more draconian measures.
The warning came as senior sources said that Downing Street had been “spooked” by data on the effectiveness of vaccines against the omicron variant prompting fears that Mr Johnson could back more stringent restrictions as soon as this week.
By Saturday, 65 Tory MPs had publicly indicated that they will refuse to support Mr Johnson’s “Plan B” in a series of votes on Tuesday. Many said they will vote against one or all of the measures.
One ministerial aide compared the current state of the Conservatives to the final months of Theresa May’s premiership, when dozens of MPs and ministers, including Mr Johnson, lined up to publicly denounce his predecessor’s Brexit policy.”
The MP said: “The mood has changed in a week. Even with Theresa it wasn’t this fast.”
Sajid Javid says no ‘Plan C’ being considered
On Saturday, in a bid to assuage concerns among ministerial aides, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, held a conference call in which he insisted no “Plan C” was under consideration.
But the call is said to have riled some of the MPs after he admitted that he was only aware of six Covid-19 patients in hospital with omicron.
One of those present accused Mr Javid of dodging several questions and described him as having been “captured” by scientists pushing for draconian measures.
In other developments:
- Amid claims that up to half a dozen ministerial aides could quit to oppose Tuesday’s measures, Paul Holmes, the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, told constituents that he was considering refusing to back the plans
- Another PPS who said they would not back the plan to impose vaccine passports on nightclubs and other large venues, said: “I feel this is the first step towards another lockdown”.
- Writing in The Telegraph, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers, accuses the Government of a “dangerous assault on liberty”.
- In a separate article in The Telegraph, Steve Baker, who has been helping to rally Tory rebels, suggests that Mr Johnson is no longer behaving like a Conservative Prime Minister, as he announces the relaunch of the Conservative Way Forward campaign group to champion a smaller state and lower taxes.
- Senior Tories are worried that the fallout over an alleged illicit party in Downing Street during last December’s Tier 3 restrictions could result in many Conservative supporters failing to vote in this week’s by-election in North Shropshire. “If we lose North Shropshire the letters [of no confidence] will go in, I’ve got no doubt,” an MP said.
On Saturday, Jamie Davies, Mr Johnson’s deputy spokesman, was accused of hypocrisy as he was unmasked as one of the officials joking about an alleged illicit party at Downing Street, having attended the event a day after warning the country to “abide by the rules”.
There was no sign on Saturday of Downing Street backing down on the “Plan B” restrictions due to be debated by MPs on Tuesday, including vaccine passports, increased mask-wearing and compulsory vaccines for NHS staff.
Sources insisted that the Government’s proposals accommodated MPs’ concerns by allowing unvaccinated people to enter nightclubs and other large venues by showing proof of a negative lateral flow test.
Senior sources said that Downing Street was now even more concerned about the omicron variant than before the Cabinet was blindsided by proposals for the “Plan B” restrictions which were presented to ministers on Wednesday morning and made public later that afternoon.
One senior source said No 10 aides were “very spooked” about data that emerged on Friday, showing that having two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine appeared to offer significantly less defence against symptomatic infection from omicron than the delta variant.
Another government source said the data had shown “a bigger difference between being double vaccinated and being boosted than we were expecting”.
The data has sent ministers scrambling to dramatically expand the roll-out of third jabs in the coming weeks, with billions more pounds expected to be spent on the programme.
But Cabinet sources, government aides and senior MPs warned that ministers and Tory parliamentarians would not accept further measures until reliable data emerged showing the number of hospitalisations and deaths caused by the new variant.
South African hospitals have reported “far milder” symptoms from omicron and on Saturday, Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said: “If it is milder … it is possible that this could act as a natural vaccine, getting to those people who have so far been unwilling to be vaccinated.”
Ministers ‘will not tolerate’ more measures without clearer omicron data
As speculation mounted over a possible “Plan C” of measures, such as extending vaccine passport requirements to other venues and re-introducing 10-day isolation periods for contacts of Covid-19 cases, a Cabinet source warned that ministers would not tolerate more measures this week in the absence of clearer data about the risks of omicron.
“Certain Cabinet ministers” would be “a lot more robust” in the event of a push for further restrictions next week, the source said.
“If we end up on the slippery slope where one week we’re doing one thing and the next we’re doing more, that is where a fair few of the Cabinet will resist”.
Another government source said that Downing Street and scientists were imposing restrictions “seemingly from nowhere – without any data whatsoever.”
Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, was said by multiple sources to be pushing for further restrictions.
“He thinks what we’ve set out already won’t be enough and we will need to do more,” said a Whitehall source.
Prime Minister is a ‘cat with nine lives’
Amid growing talk about an attempt to unseat Mr Johnson as Conservative leader, one senior Conservative in the City described the Prime Minister as a cat with nine lives but insisted he had “only used up about five of them so far”.
Others insisted he was “nearer to seven or eight”.
Discussing the potential rebellion on Tuesday, one PPS told The Telegraph that, following anger over Mr Johnson’s handling of a series of scandals and domestic policies, “The truth is that the balance has now tipped.
“People are not going to do things for the sake of government jobs that aren’t going to be there in a year because there is going to be a leadership contest. I didn’t anticipate it coming this quickly.”
The MP added: “It’s quite hard to get people back from a place where they fundamentally don’t trust the [No 10] operation.”
In his article, Mr Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said: “Of course, I will vote against all measures on Tuesday.
“But I cannot in good conscience stop there when we are falling into such a ghastly trap, creating a two-tier Britain where we turn back the clock and tolerate businesses turning away customers from communities which have shown an unfortunate hesitancy to take up the offer of a vaccine.”
He adds: “Conservatives shouldn’t limit the ability of young people to get on the housing ladder, yet we’re doing precisely this by allowing Government to spend far too much taxpayers’ money.”
A Downing Street source said: “We have said very clearly we’re not going to bring in more measures until we know more about the variant and have more data. We need to see the effect of plan B.”