Prime minister risks major rebellion over Covid jab passports, say Tory MPs

Conservative MPs believe Boris Johnson faces a major rebellion over Covid vaccine passports but could be supported by Labour, who were on Tuesday night wavering over whether to back them.

Tory MPs opposed to the plan for Covid passes to enter nightclubs and other crowded indoor venues said more than 40 Conservatives were prepared to defy the prime minister over civil liberties concerns, particularly as No 10 has refused to rule out extending the passes to pubs and other sectors.

The scale of the rebellion could put any vote on a knife-edge if opposition parties also oppose the idea, which was proposed by Johnson on Monday in an extraordinary U-turn hours after clubs were allowed to open in England for the first time in 16 months.

At least 42 Tory MPs have signed a cross-party Big Brother Watch declaration against “Covid status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs” in recent months. More MPs privately told the Guardian they were unlikely to back such a move, especially if it remained a vaccine-only pass that did not recognise a negative test result or evidence of antibodies.

The issue is likely to be raised on Wednesday at a meeting of the new 1922 Committee of backbenchers, which is now led by three sceptics of Covid passports. Nusrat Ghani and William Wragg were elected as new vice-chairs on Tuesday, joining the longtime chairman, Sir Graham Brady. On Tuesday some Tory MPs threatened to boycott the Conservative party conference in October over fears Covid passports would be required.

However, Keir Starmer is still undecided about which way Labour will vote, despite the party leader having previously suggested Covid certificates would be against the “British instinct”.

Labour shadow ministers were locked in talks on Tuesday about the party’s position and were expected to have made a decision by Wednesday morning. If they oppose the passports, Johnson could face defeat in the Commons as the Liberal Democrats are also opposed.

However, senior Labour figures are believed to have argued that the situation has fundamentally changed since the party first set out its position. Cases are soaring, and jabs are being offered to young people and pregnant women who otherwise might have been excluded, reducing the argument that they are discriminatory. Ministers have promised exemptions for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Asked on Tuesday whether access to pubs and transport could eventually be subject to Covid passports, Johnson’s spokesperson said the government was “going to use the coming weeks to look at the evidence, particularly both in the UK and globally before making a specific decision”.

Several Tory MPs spoke of their frustration. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, said the policy was “without logic”, especially as having two jabs was currently not enough for people to avoid isolating after exposure to Covid.

Steve Baker, one of the main opponents of Covid passports, said: “There is nothing I can do or Conservatives can do if Labour continue to decline to oppose the government’s illiberal policies. This is really now all about Sir Keir, who described this policy as un-British.”

Many were also sceptical that the plan, proposed from the end of September, would come to pass. “I am considering voting against the whip for the first time in my life, but I’m also not going to worry about it too much over the summer as it does sound like No 10 using it as a stick to try and persuade young people to get jabbed,” one Tory backbencher said.

A former minister is braced for another U-turn. “My sense about the government is that they’ve become a racing car that always ends up at the same spot they started at. Drifting to the right, on to the straight and back in to the stands again … it’s just reacting to this and that, a scientist or a public opinion poll. There is little sense that there’s a clear plan. We’ve changed it so often,” he said.

One MP said they had “no doubt” Johnson would insist on vaccine passports for the party’s conference, and that “as a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a number of Conservative MPs and activists refuse to attend”.

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