Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden today claimed Tory rebel fears over ministers imposing coronavirus restrictions without asking MPs to vote on them first are ‘overblown’.
The Government will this week ask MPs to renew emergency coronavirus powers for another six months.
But Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, has tabled an amendment which would require votes to be held on new measures ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’.
Sir Graham is believed to now have the support of 60 of his Tory colleagues ahead of a potential crunch vote on the move on Wednesday.
One of the backers of the amendment, former Brexit minister Steve Baker, today argued that ‘liberty dies’ when governments are allowed to ‘exercise draconian powers without parliamentary scrutiny in advance’.
But Mr Dowden defended the Government’s current approach of imposing rules without parliamentary votes as he said Mr Baker’s concerns were ‘slightly overblown’.
The Cabinet minister said the ‘rapidly’ changing nature of the pandemic meant that the Government needed to retain the ‘power to move quickly’.
His comments came after it was claimed that Boris Johnson is preparing to face down the rebels amid speculation the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will rule that Sir Graham’s amendment is ‘out of scope’ and therefore cannot be voted on.
The Sunday Telegraph said Mr Johnson is set to rebuff Tory calls for the Government to offer votes on future rules of its own volition if the amendment is not selected.
That would effectively leave the Tory rebels with only the ‘nuclear’ option of voting against the renewal of the Coronavirus Act in order to make their point – something the vast majority of the 60 MPs will not want to do.
The row over giving Parliament a vote on rules before they are rolled out came as Labour took a poll lead over the Tories for the first time since Mr Johnson became PM.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News this morning that Tory rebel fears over ministers imposing coronavirus rules are ‘overblown’
Boris Johnson is under pressure from Tory MPs to grant Parliament a vote on any new coronavirus restrictions before they are rolled out
Sir Graham’s amendment is designed to grant MPs a vote on any new coronavirus restrictions proposed by the Government.
If it is selected by Sir Lindsay and 60 Tory MPs back it then Mr Johnson will face the real risk of having his 85-seat working majority overturned – should opposition parties also choose to support the move.
The Government is required to ask Parliament to renew the powers contained within the Coronavirus Act for another six months on Wednesday and the rebels are hoping Sir Lindsay will grant them a vote on Sir Graham’s amendment.
If the amendment is not selected and the Government refuses to budge it would effectively amount to the PM daring Conservative MPs to vote against renewing the Act.
The vast majority of the rebels are unlikely to be willing to go that far because torpedoing the renewal of the legislation would cause massive damage to the Government and restrict ministers’ ability to respond to the pandemic.
Mr Baker told Sky News today that what the Tory rebels have put forward is a ‘very modest proposal’ as he expressed serious concerns about the way rules are currently rolled out.
He said: ‘How do people think that liberty dies? It dies like this with government exercising draconian powers, without parliamentary scrutiny in advance, undermining the rule of law by having a shifting blanket of rules that no-one can understand.’
But Mr Dowden dismissed Mr Baker’s concerns, telling Sky News: ‘I have huge respect for Steve Baker, I like him enormously, but I think that is slightly overblown.
‘Actually it is important that Parliament holds the Government to account, that is why, for example, we will be having the first debate on Government time on Covid.
‘Of course there will be a chance for MPs to debate and vote on new measures through what we call statutory instruments, there will be votes on that for example in relation to the rule of six.’
Asked whether MPs should be able to vote on restriction before they are imposed, Mr Dowden said: ‘I think it is important in a crisis like this when things are moving very rapidly that the Government has the power to move quickly and that is the power that the Government was given through the initial legislation earlier this year.
‘But it is then important that MPs hold us to account and vote on that and thatis exactly what is happening here.
‘I am very clear, these are very difficult choices we are making. We have a rapidly expanding virus. We also have huge economic consequences from the decisions we are taking and we are having to take measures to deal with that.
‘It is entirely right that Government ministers are properly scrutinised by Parliament through this process.’
The rebels remain hopeful that a deal can be done with the Government to give Parliament more of a say over new restrictions.
Andrew Mitchell, the former Chief Whip, said: ‘When the chairman of the 1922 Committee leads a rebellion like this it would be an exceedingly careless Prime Minister that chose to ignore it.’
1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady has tabled an amendment which would require new rules to be voted on before they come into force
Sir Graham told the Observer that ‘it is essential that the House of Commons should have the opportunity to debate and vote on emergency measures before they come into force’.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Baker had said: ‘Covid-19 remains a dangerous disease for those vulnerable to it but it is now clear the position is not as catastrophic as feared.
‘It is no longer appropriate to curtail our freedoms by ministerial decree with only retrospective approval by Parliament, often after rules have been amended or repealed.’
Mr Johnson is also facing pressure over his handling of the coronavirus crisis from Tory donors who have lashed out over his decision last week to impose fresh restrictions amid growing concerns for the economy.
One donor said the PM was ‘being overly cautious’ and that will ‘cost us economically a hell of a lot’ while another said the outlook for many businesses was now ‘super bleak’, according to the Sunday Times.
It came as a survey conducted by Opinium showed the Labour Party now has a poll lead over the Tories for the first time in this parliament.
Labour is now on 42 per cent of the vote share, up three points on a fortnight ago, with the Tories dropping three points to 39 per cent.