‘Scrutiny is meant to be inconvenient’: How rebels won their battle for lockdown votes
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‘Scrutiny is meant to be inconvenient’: How rebels won their battle for lockdown votes

It took just half an hour for MPs to take back control of Boris Johnson’s ability to order national coronavirus lockdowns.

Tory MPs Sir Graham Brady and his rebel “whip”, Steve Baker, had shuffled into a Commons meeting room straight after Prime Minister’s Questions to face Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, and Mark Spencer, the Government’s chief whip.

The pair were joined by MPs from all parts of the Conservative party, including Damian Green, who chairs the “One Nation” caucus of moderate Tory MPs, Dehenna Davison, from the 2019 “Red Wall” intake, Mark Harper, a former chief whip, and Remainer Stephen Hammond.

The Cabinet ministers knew they were beaten and made it clear that, in future, MPs would be granted a vote on national coronavirus lockdowns rather than the Government relying on executive orders that can only be voted on weeks after the event.

“Peace has come!” one of the rebels in the room said in a text to The Telegraph. “This is a significant day for parliamentary control over the Government. This is how our system is supposed to work.” 

The relief was palpable – but, in truth, it had not been in doubt. It was the culmination of weeks of discontent from a growing number of Conservatives that the Government’s plans were not getting scrutinised by MPs first.

Sir Graham had been particularly exercised that the “rule of six” prohibiting large gatherings, as well as fines of up to £10,000 for lockdown breaches, had been proposed and implemented without a vote in the Commons last month. So when the Government came back to Parliament to ask for permission to continue with its Covid restrictions – as it must do every six months – he decided to act.

Sir Graham amended the Government’s simple motion “that the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire” with a requirement to give Parliament a vote on any restrictions that affect all of England or the UK “as far as is practicable”.

When the Brady amendment was published last Thursday, it was backed by 42 Tory MPs

By Wednesday morning, 56 Conservatives had signed it, although the true number was said to be nearer 80 if it had been put to a vote – more than the 43 MPs needed to overhaul the Government’s 85-strong working majority.

What had started as an obsession of the Conservatives’ libertarian wing had become a cross-party concern. 

In all, 79 Labour, Tory and DUP MPs had put their name to the Brady amendment, providing a rare opportunity for left-wing Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott and Tory right-wingers Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and David Davis to agree on something.

While the numbers of rebels built, Sir Graham, along with Mr Baker, had been in talks with ministers behind the scenes about a deal holding face-to-face meetings with Mr Hancock and Mr Spencer on Monday and Tuesday.

Mr Johnson had not encouraged the rebels when he told journalists on Tuesday that MPs will “have an opportunity to talk about these issues, to debate them properly”, without any mention of a vote. Yet that evening, Sir Graham was optimistic enough to tell friends that “we are in a good place”.

The Government’s last hope of avoiding a climbdown had been that Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, would refuse to accept the amendment because it was deemed to be “out of scope” by his legal advisers.

In an unusual statement before Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Sir Lindsay made it plain that he could not select the amendment because it “risks giving rise to uncertainty about the decision the House has taken… and undermining the rule of law”. 

But in a rebuke (see video below), he added: “I am looking to the Government to remedy a situation I regard as completely unsatisfactory. I now look to the Government to rebuild the trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that they have shown.”

Sir Lindsay’s strongly-worded intervention had done the trick. All that was left was for Mr Hancock to announce the climbdown at the Commons dispatch box just two hours later.

“Today, I can confirm to the House that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament; wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force,” the Health Secretary said. 

MPs and peers would, from now on, get a 90-minute debate and a vote on future national lockdowns.

Sir Graham was the first MP to congratulate Mr Hancock, thanking him for “being prepared to listen and for the constructive conversations that we have had over the last couple of weeks”.

“We are grateful that he and other members of the Government have understood the importance of proper scrutiny in this place and the benefits that that can bring for better government,” he said.

Other Tory MPs were quick to follow suit. Mr Baker told the Commons he was “extremely grateful” for what Mr Hancock “has set out and the manner in which he has done it”.

Mr Harper paid tribute to Sir Lindsay, saying that following his “stern words earlier, the Government has listened and come forward with some measures that have responded appropriately”, and Nusrat Ghani said: “This debate is not only about scrutiny and allowing the House to debate and vote; it is also about giving him [Mr Hancock] the credibility to continue the work he is doing.”

Essentially, the Government had accepted the Brady amendment. The only linguistic difference was that MPs would be allowed to vote “wherever possible” rather than “as far as is reasonably practicable”.

Sir Graham told The Telegraph on Wednesday night that greater scrutiny by MPs will lead to better thought-out lockdown laws, describing the effective parliamentary veto over future restrictions as “an important step forward”.

He said: “The Government have now accepted the terms of my amendment and committed to seeking proper parliamentary approval in advance of significant measures being brought forward. Debate and scrutiny and challenging questions will always improve the quality of legislation and will also help to improve the public’s understanding of what measures are introduced and why.”

The question of why it took so long for ministers to agree lingered in Westminster. Sir Graham had his own answer.

“All governments will get away without scrutiny if they can,” he said. “Parliamentary scrutiny is inconvenient – but it is meant to be inconvenient. That is why it is so important that we insisted, and so important that ministers have listened and realised they have to take a different approach.”

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