Keir Starmer slammed Boris Johnson over the mass Tory Covid revolt today amid fears he could be ousted if he tries to impose lockdown to combat the Omicron threat.
The Labour leader demanded Mr Johnson ‘gets his house in order’ and branded him ‘weak’ and the ‘worst PM at the worst possible time’ during brutal clashes at PMQs.
But Mr Johnson insisted the government is taking a ‘balanced and proportionate approach’, arguing that the Plan B measures were passed with ‘Conservatives votes’ – even though 100 of his own MPs opposed Covid passes.
Although the measure went through thanks to Labour bailing Mr Johnson out, there are now serious questions about whether he has the political strength to crack down further.
Mr Johnson confirmed that he has bowed to demands that Parliament must be recalled for a vote before any further restrictions are brought in, saying the Commons will get a ‘further say’ if ‘further measures are needed’.
During the pandemic most curbs have been introduced by ministers and then only approved by MPs retrospectively, something that has added to the fury of sceptics.
One Cabinet source warned that the only way Tory MPs would support a tightening now was after ‘very clear evidence that Omicron is leading to hospitalisations and deaths’.
However, scientists advising the Government have ramped up the pressure for tougher measures, taking to the airwaves to warn of an impending Omicron crisis.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency – which replaced the now-defunct Public Health England, warned Omicron posed the ‘biggest threat’ yet and that the NHS was ‘in peril’.
SAGE modeller Professor Graham Medley said he feared the super-strain could trigger a ‘very large’ wave of hospitalisations because it is so transmissible, while jabs adviser Professor Adam Finn called for action to halt the ‘alarming’ spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Michael Gove is set to chair a Cobra meeting on the Covid situation with Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford. Ms Sturgeon has been complaining that the Treasury is not providing enough money for her to ramp up restrictions again north of the border.
Ringleaders ordered Boris Johnson (pictured at PMQs) to ‘change’ amid open warnings that he could face a leadership challenge after the extraordinary protest by 100 MPs over the introduction of Covid passes
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (right) confirmed this morning that the premier has bowed to demands from rebels including Mark Harper (left) that Parliament must be recalled for a vote before any further restrictions are brought in
The mutiny suffered by Mr Johnson in the Commons last night (pictured) was close to the record insurrection that hammered Theresa May’s Brexit deal in 2019 – and greater than the biggest rebellions faced by David Cameron, Sir John Major and Margaret Thatcher
Tory MPs tried to put on a show of unity in the Commons today.
But twisting the knife, Sir Keir said: ‘Can I take this opportunity to make clear to the Prime Minister that if further votes are needed to save lives and protect the NHS, Labour MPs will follow my leadership and we will always put the NHS first.
‘Can I ask the Prime Minister to get his house in order so he can say the same about the members behind him?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Yes. If further measures are needed, as the House will understand, if further regulation is needed of course this House will have a further say.
‘As for following his leadership, they wibble-wobbled over Plan B, they wibble-wobbled over quarantine, and if we listened to him, we wouldn’t have even had the vaccine rollout.’
Sir Keir goaded Mr Johnson that ‘his MPs don’t believe him and nor do the British public’.
‘He’s taking the public for fools and it’s becoming dangerous because from today anyone who tests positive for coronavirus faces a second Christmas in isolation. It’ll be heart-breaking for families across the country,’ he said.
‘The message from the Government has to be: ‘We know that following the rules won’t be easy this Christmas but it is necessary.’
‘Can the Prime Minister not see that he has no hope of regaining the moral authority to deliver that difficult message if he cannot be straight with the British public about the rule-breaking in Downing Street last Christmas?’
Mr Johnson said the public wants the government to ‘focus on the matter in hand’ and roll out boosters.
The mutiny suffered by Mr Johnson was close to the record insurrection that hammered Theresa May’s Brexit deal in 2019 – and greater than the biggest rebellions faced by David Cameron, Sir John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
Thirteen MPs who have attended Cabinet under four premiers defied Mr Johnson, including Dame Andrea Leadsom, David Davis, Liam Fox and Chris Grayling. Some 26 Tories first elected in his 2019 landslide victory revolted.
Louie French, the newest Tory MP who was elected in a by-election less than two weeks ago, also went against the government whip.
The numbers were more than enough to wipe out the government’s huge 80-strong majority had Keir Starmer not ridden to the rescue.
The vote came less than two hours after the PM made a last-ditch attempt to quell the rebellion by telling a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers that he had ‘no choice’ but to impose new curbs.
The grim week for Mr Johnson looks set to get worse, with the Tory struggling to cling on to the previously rock-solid seat of North Shropshire in a by-election tomorrow, triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson in the sleaze furore.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, a leading Covid rebel, said the government cannot respond to variants by ‘immediately going into emergency mode’ and complained that the PM ‘scared’ people by going on TV on Sunday night.
‘It may be the government has to come before parliament with some further measures. My argument has been we shouldn’t be rising on Thursday for Christmas, and if ministers want to bring further measures before parliament there’s an opportunity for the government to demonstrate it has listened to concerns,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Harper said Mr Johnson must ‘act differently’. ‘Instead of the PM making a late night address on Sunday and scaring many people witless a better thing to do would have been to come to the House of Commons on Monday to set out in detail the advice that he has received, the things that he thinks needs to happen as a result and allow MPs to ask questions,’ he said.
‘What I am calling for is for him to change how he operates so that parliament is properly involved.’
Mr Shapps admitted that Parliament would need to be recalled, although he said he had ‘some confidence’ more curbs will not be needed.
‘We have got in place now the measures that we believe will see us through to the new year,’ Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast.
There were long queues at another vaccination centre on Solihull High Street in the West Midlands today
‘If we did need to do anything else, Parliament would be recalled too in order to vote on doing that, so it won’t just be an automated thing.
‘We want people to be able enjoy Christmas this year. We are definitely in a better position than we were last year.’
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee, said last night that a leadership challenge has ‘got to be on the cards’ for Mr Johnson in the new year if he does not change the way he worked with his MPs.
While former Tory chief whip and leading rebel Mark Harper said: ‘You either listen and you respond and you do things differently or you ignore what you have been told and you plough on regardless and then this will happen over and over again.’
Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the committee, said the rebellion was a ‘cry of pain’ by the party.
He told BBC News: ‘This was just a bridge too far. I think they were putting a marker down. It was a cry of pain from the Conservative Party. He (Boris Johnson) is in a very, very, very difficult position. There has been a strong view in within the Conservative Party that vaccine passports do not work and is not something many colleagues wanted to see introduced.
‘This is a very, very specific line being drawn in the sand now and I think the Prime Minister and his team need to listen.’
The message from MPs comes as many are still angry over the revelations of alleged parties and gatherings held in Downing Street and elsewhere during lockdown restrictions, as well as longer held resentment about the Government’s handling of the standards row involving former MP Owen Paterson which led to Thursday’s by-election.