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Can a Conservative MP bang a virtual desk? We may find out tomorrow afternoon, when Boris Johnson will address the 1922 Committee – or at least as many members of it as the techology is able to cope with.
Many revolts have been forecast for such meetings, for which Tory MPs meet en masse in Committee Room 14, but few of these predictions have ever come true.
And the Prime Minister will doubtless be given a good reception tomorrow (assuming the meeting goes ahead), with most criticism couched in code, as is usually the case.
What may matter more is not so much how they react to the plan on the morning or the day after its announcement – whether in that virtual meeting tomorrow or during Johnson’s statement to the virtual Commons this afternoon – but during the weeks and perhaps months that lie ahead.
ConHome has done two ring-rounds of Conservative MPs – see here and here – and found last time round that the balance of opinion supported a gradual lockdown lifting.
Since then, a few have gone further: Graham Brady, Steve Baker and Charles Walker led the charge during a debate on Coronavirus regulations last week.
All three are members of the ’22s executive, and the first and third are officers. It has been dividing 12-4 over the lockdown, with the majority arguing for a substantial early lifting.
What the executive and Tory MPs do now is a very moot question. The sum of the Prime Minister’s new plan is that it guarantees no substantial change to the lockdown, with the exception of activity outdoors as of Wednesday, for all the prospective timetable that he laid out.
There is a durable political case for it: were further waves of the virus to overwhelm the NHS, social distancing would soar voluntarily, the economy would stay in stasis – and the Government’s credibility would be shot.
As long as the Conservative poll ratings remain buoyant (how long will that be?), Johnson can afford to shrug off both his left-wing and right-wing critics, including much of the Tory press, and soldier on.
He will be more concerned about Keir Starmer outflanking him amongst virus-wary workers in Red Wall seats, and by the potential threat to the Union’s response to the virus from Nicola Sturgeon and the Welsh Government.
Our take is that Conservative MPs – who after all have the power to fire Johnson as party leader, for all his emphatic majority gained less than six months ago – are crucial to the lockdown’s future. And this site’s best guess is that for the moment they will mostly watch and wait to see what happens next.
A two-day general debate on the Coronavirus is due to kick off today – the Government having pulled, in effect, a planned vote tomorrow on virus-driven prisoner releases (a potential flashpoint for a backbench revolt).
We will all see what it produces. All in all, a shift from public support for shutdowns is only likely to come when anxiety about job losses and recession outweighs concern for the NHS and its workers.
Our columnist James Frayne believes that support for the lockdown is wide but shallow, and this site has wondered whether a tipping-point might come three months after the economic contraction began – in early to mid-June.
At any rate, Tory MPs are unlikely to move en masse – tabling critical amendments to legislation, challenging the Prime Minister openly at PMQs, and so on – until public opinion moves.