UK's Johnson faces angry MPs at vote on new virus curbs

London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday faces a backlash from his own MPs in parliament over new coronavirus restrictions, as he battles a slump in support and questions about his future.


Members of Johnson's Conservative party have hit out at new rules on face-mask wearing, testing, self-isolation and vaccine passes, warning they damage public freedoms.

Tory MP Steve Baker, from the Covid Recovery Group, accused Johnson of creating a "miserable dystopia" by introducing "disproportionate" curbs based on incomplete evidence.

The former junior Brexit minister said at the weekend that opposition to the series of votes to enshrine the rules in law was about "what kind of society we're creating".

But Johnson maintains tougher measures are needed urgently to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a "tidal wave" of Omicron infections in the weeks and months ahead.

On Monday, he said at least one person had died after contracting the coronavirus variant.

A spate of infections is also wreaking havoc on sports fixtures. The English Premier League reported a record 42 new cases among football players and staff on Monday, with an outbreak forcing Manchester United to postpone Tuesday's match against Brentford.

The Premier League has told clubs to reinstate Covid emergency measures following the introduction last week of the new rules to limit the spread of Omicron.

At least 60 Tory MPs -- possibly more -- are reported to be set to rebel over the new restrictions, although the government with its 80-seat majority is expected to win with opposition party support.

The situation stands in stark contrast to previous votes at parliament, which effectively rubber-stamped Covid rules, and could not come at a worse time for Johnson.

Over the last week, he has seen support plummet in opinion polls and faced open calls to quit because of reports that he and staff broke coronavirus rules last Christmas.

The alleged parties at Downing Street and other government departments have led to charges of double standards, as ministers had told the public to cancel their festive plans.

Sleaze and scandal

A series of separate scandals and sleaze allegations have led some commentators to predict an internal party vote of no confidence in Johnson's leadership.

Just as he insisted no social distancing rules were broken, his party was last week fined for failing to declare who paid for a lavish makeover of the prime minister's Downing Street flat.

Defeat or a significant cut in the Tory majority in a by-election in the North Shropshire constituency vacated by Owen Paterson could put Johnson under added pressure
Defeat or a significant cut in the Tory majority in a by-election in the North Shropshire constituency vacated by Owen Paterson could put Johnson under added pressure Tolga AKMEN AFP

That added to claims of cronyism and corruption after reports the government handed wealthy Tory donors plum seats in the unelected House of Lords.

Johnson caused outrage for trying to change parliament's disciplinary rules after a Tory MP illegally lobbied ministers for two companies that had him on their payrolls.

The MP, Owen Paterson, later quit, forcing a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency on Thursday, the result of which could make Johnson's position even more fragile.

Paterson had a 23,000 majority at the last election in 2019 but a significant cut in that or even a defeat in the Tory safe seat could put Johnson's position in peril.

Political commentator Robin Pettitt said Johnson -- a former journalist and London mayor known for his unconventional style -- could ride out one or two scandals.

But the cumulative effect, and any fears he has become an electoral liability, may force Tories to act, despite the Brexit champion's landslide victory just two years ago.

"The Conservative party have always been very ruthless when it comes to getting rid of leaders that were not working," he told AFP.