A group of Conservative MPs has accused the government of wanting “total social control” as the Commons overwhelmingly backed extending emergency coronavirus powers.
A total of 76 MPs – including 35 rebel Tory backbenchers – voted against the extension but 483 MPs, including 176 from Labour, voted for the legislation to remain for another six months.
While ministers argue the extension is needed to continue furlough payments, sick pay for self-isolators and other measures, highly sceptical backbenchers hit back, accusing the government of believing “fundamental civil liberties belong to ministers”.
Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, said “we we risk normalising an extreme policy response”, and added that ministers did not have the “right to tell people whether they can see their children or their grandchildren, whether they can start a relationship with someone”.
Brady said there is a difference between doing something “briefly in an emergency, or for over a year,” while warning: “The danger is the government starts to believe that these fundamental civil liberties belong to ministers to grant to us or withhold.
“They do not, they belong as of right to British citizens. It is this habit of control that leads to coercive rules that have no sense in them.”
Powers may be extended into 2022, admits Hancock
Health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons the Coronavirus Act must be retired “within one year and preferably within six months” but added he could not rule out extending the legislation past the end of September.
“I cannot answer whether we will be retiring it in six months,” said Hancock. “My preference would be yes, but given the last year, I think a prediction would be hasty.”
Sir Charles Walker – Conservative MP for Broxbourne since May 2005 – confidently predicts MPs will be asked to vote for another extension in the autumn saying it is “as sure as eggs are eggs”.
“It is inevitable and anyone who thinks it is not inevitable is deluding themselves,” added Walker, vice-chairman of the influential 1922 Committee, who pledged “to walk around London with a pint of milk on my person, because that pint will represent my protest.”
Walker said the pint of milk will represent “this country’s slide into authoritarianism” and later appeared on Channel 4 News with his milk.
In the Commons, Walker was joined by other high profile Conservative MPs voting against the extension, including former cabinet ministers David Davies and Ester McVey, along with Alistair Carmichael, Sir Christopher Chope, Mark Harper and Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Research Group (CRG).
The Liberal Democrats, DUP and 21 rebel Labour MPs also voted against extending the emergency legislation.
‘Extraordinary provisions, not for normal times,’ says former Tory whip
Former Conservative party chief whip Mark Harper – who now leads the CRG – told the Commons: “These are extraordinary provisions, not for normal times, and they should be expired at the earliest possible opportunity.”
He added: “My own quarrel is the pace, not the direction of travel.
“There will be jobs that are lost, businesses that fail, and people who find the personal burden incredibly difficult, who don’t need to go through that for another two months if we were to reopen safely earlier.”