‘Authoritarianism’: Tory backbench anger over coronavirus restrictions bursts into the open

Andrew Woodcock
·5-min read
Matt Hancock (PRU/AFP via Getty Images)
Matt Hancock (PRU/AFP via Getty Images)

Tory backbench anger over coronavirus restrictions burst into the open today as health secretary Matt Hancock faced charges of “authoritarianism” from a member of his own party.

A string of Conservative MPs voiced concern in a Commons debate over the impact of lockdown measures on individual freedom, mental health and the treatment of other illnesses such as cancer.

It came as a senior former minister told The Independent that he expects a “sizeable” backbench rebellion to force Boris Johnson to make concessions to MPs who want to remove the government’s power to introduce new restrictions without debate or a vote in parliament.

The Coronavirus Act passed by parliament in the spring allowed ministers to personally sign off regulations imposing a sweeping range of restrictions to fight the spread of coronavirus. The latest move saw Boris Johnson announce a £10,000 fine for people in England who refuse to obey an order to self-isolate.

But a “sunset clause” inserted by former cabinet minister David Davis requires ministers to ask MPs to renew those powers in a vote on 30 September.

And Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the powerful Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, is tabling an amendment which would require the Government to put any new measures to a vote of MPs.

He today said ministers had “got into the habit of ruling by decree”, adding: “The British people are not used to being treated like children.”

Sir Graham said more scrutiny of the so-called rule of six would have enabled MPs to question why the limit was put at six and not eight or 10 and why children were included in England and not in Wales or Scotland.

Mr Davis today said he believes substantial unease on the Tory backbenches will force Mr Johnson to give ground.

“I think the government will have to concede something on this,” Mr Davis told The Independent. “The prime minister will get a pretty sizeable Tory rebellion and I think the government, if they are sensible, will pre-emptively come up with their own proposals.”

Mr Davis said that “ruling by diktat” had undermined the quality of legislation by freeing ministers of the need to consider objections likely to be raised by MPs over the impact of proposed restrictions on sectors of society from business to tourism to the elderly.

And he said that the urgency which existed when the act was first passed in the spring no longer existed: “None of these things now are emergencies. They are handling a crisis, but they are not emergencies. If something genuinely urgent comes up, they have other ways of forcing things through.”

Meanwhile, the cross-party Commons Human Rights Committee tabled its own amendment, requiring all emergency coronavirus regulations to be confirmed within seven days by a vote in parliament.

In the Commons chamber, veteran backbench MP Sir Edward Leigh told Mr Hancock: “The trouble with authoritarianism is that it is profoundly inimical to civil liberties. “It is also increasingly incompetent. It relies on acquiescence and acquiescence for lockdowns - particularly national ones - is draining away.”

Former cabinet minister Chris Grayling told Mr Hancock: “Given the huge consequences of this virus for people in our communities on their mental health, particularly the younger generation who are paying a very heavy price … I do not believe the case for further national measures has yet been made.”

Tory MP Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) told Mr Hancock to remind Mr Johnson that “we actually live in a democracy not a dictatorship and we would like a debate in this House”.

And Middlesbrough South MP Simon Clarke said: “Human beings in a free society musty have the right to some social contact as they go about their daily lives.”

In a plea for MPs to have a say over future restrictions, Sir Graham told Mr Hancock that they would be “improved by debate and scrutiny”.

And Mr Hancock appeared to signal that he was preparing to relinquish some ministerial control, replying: “I agree. Essentially, the more scrutiny the better is my attitude, and I am very happy to continue to work with (Sir Graham) and the Speaker to ensure that the scrutiny can be done at the speed with which these decisions have to be made.”

Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne told The Independent that he would be backing Sir Graham’s amendment.

‘I’m fundamentally opposed to the drift of government policy on this,” said the New Forest West MP. “This is a seasonal disease and we have got to get used to living with it.

“I recognise I’m in a minority on this, but in a democracy the minority consents to be ruled by the majority because at least their voice is heard.”

The growing concern on Tory backbenches came as a retired senior judge accused parliament of surrendering control to the Government over the “draconian” measures.

Baroness Hale, former president of the Supreme Court, called for the return of a “properly functioning constitution as soon as we possibly can”.

The Coronavirus Act 2020, passed in March, gave the Government “sweeping” powers alongside other “draconian” regulations, and “it is not surprising the police were as confused as the public as to what was law and what was not”, she wrote.

“Maybe the lockdown and its severe consequences … were inevitable or at least the best solution that could be devised in the circumstances,” she said.

“My plea is that we get back to a properly functioning constitution as soon as we possibly can.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman defended the approach ahead of the first six-monthly review of the legislation.

“Both houses have had opportunities to debate and scrutinise all of the lockdown regulations,” he said.

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