Boris Johnson has been urged by an influential Conservative MP to end all Covid-19 restrictions by the end of this month, or face a massive revolt within his party and the prospect of a leadership challenge later this year.
Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic Tory Covid Recovery Group, said Johnson should announce by January 26 — when most current rules expire — that he will end them and never bring them back.
The former Tory chief whip told the Financial Times that Johnson could face a leadership challenge after May’s local elections unless he changes the way he operates and proves he is still an electoral asset.
Harper said that upon the expiry of existing plan B rules — notably work from home guidance, mask-wearing in public places and Covid passes -Johnson should vow they will never return, even if new variants emerge.
“The problem is he sort of wants to agree with us, then he says he wants to keep restrictions in reserve or won’t rule them out,” Harper said. “That’s becoming an unsustainable position.
“If I was running a hospitality business I would be very nervous about investing, growing my business, taking any risks because I literally have no idea about what’s going to happen.”
Harper acknowledges that Covid will become endemic in society, but wants Johnson to deal with it through a new push to vaccinate hesitant people, the creation of special hospital wards and treatments, rather than lockdowns.
“At some point you’ve got to say, whatever happens, whatever variants turn up, we’re not going to respond by shutting down parts of the country,” he said. “That’s not a sustainable position.”
Asked when Johnson should formally declare an end to Covid restrictions, Harper said: “If that’s not now, when is it?”
He warned that if Johnson asked MPs to extend plan B measures beyond January 26, he would face an even bigger revolt than the one seen in December, when almost 100 Tory MPs voted against Covid passes.
“I think there will be even more people against it,” he said. “I think the intellectual argument now is even weaker.” He wants remaining self-isolation laws, which expire in March, to be replaced by a voluntary approach.
Harper, who stood unsuccessfully against Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019, denied that the CRG, with an estimated 70-80 members, was becoming a party within a party.
He said Tory MPs and voters — including those who elected a Liberal Democrat MP in the North Shropshire by-election last month — wanted to see a change in “how the prime minister conducts the government”.
“What will happen depends on whether he does things differently,” he said. “Whether we see proper discussions in cabinet, the government operating in a properly Conservative direction — where you don’t look to the state for solutions to everything — and try to keep public spending under control.”
Asked if he thought Johnson would be in trouble if he failed to change, and the Tories did badly in May’s local elections, Harper said: “I do.” But he added: “It’s in his hands.”
He said: “Conservative MPs will be asking themselves: am I going to hold my seat? They will look at polling and consider who is the person best able to help them keep their seats.
“Conservative MPs have asked themselves that question in the past and decided they need to do something about it. Prime ministers are on a performance-related contract.”
Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary, on Sunday said Britain was making the Covid transition from “pandemic to endemic” but accepted that “the next two weeks will be bumpy”.
Zahawi said it would “certainly help” if the minimum isolation period was further cut from seven days to five days, but that this would only happen upon the advice of the UK Health Security Agency.
The minister also told the BBC that there was no immediate prospect of the government cutting back on free testing. “We are not calling for an end to free lateral flow tests,” he said.