Boris Johnson is facing potential defeat over his power to impose future lockdown restrictions, after dozens of Tory MPs joined a rebel bid to make any new coronavirus measures subject to a vote in parliament.
Some 42 Tory MPs have added their names to an amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, the highly influential chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, to require a vote “as soon as reasonably practicable” on new powers.
The rebels are just one MP short of overturning the government’s working majority of 85 in the Commons, with more expected to join them ahead of a crucial debate on Wednesday.
Under the terms of the Coronavirus Act passed in the spring, the government must ask parliament every six months to renew its approval for Covid-19 restrictions to be introduced without a debate and vote in parliament.
Since the first imposition of emergency measures in March, the bulk of restrictions have been simply signed into law by health secretary Matt Hancock either under the terms of the Act or of the 1984 Public Health Act.
However it is by no means certain the rebel amendment will go to a vote on Wednesday, as procedural reasons mean that it may not be selected by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
And it is unclear whether Labour, which has tabled its own amendment, will back the Brady proposals.
Tory rebels are hoping that the government will announce a climbdown to avoid angry scenes on its own backbenches on Monday, when the Commons is scheduled to spend the day debating the UK handling of the pandemic.
The prime minister is facing a difficult week in the chamber, with his controversial UK Internal Market Bill due on Tuesday to complete its passage through the lower House, with the potential for further bust-ups over provisions which the government acknowledge break international law.
The 42 Tories include 1922 officers Sir Graham, Sir Charles Walker, Bob Blackman, Pauline Latham, Karl McCartney, Dame Cheryl Gillan and Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. Former ministers who have signed it include David Davis, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Sir John Red wood, Damian Green, Tim Loughton and David Jones, as well as Sir Bernard Jenkin and Sir Bob Neill.
Crucially, John Cryer, the Parliamentary Labour Party chairman, and a for-mer acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, as well as senior DUP MPs have also signed the amendment.
Sir Graham told The Daily Telegraph: “I am delighted the amendment has been tabled with such strong support from both sides of the House. I hope this will help to persuade Mr Speaker that this issue of such importance that the amendment should be accepted.”
Mr Davis added: “The smart sense is for the Government to give Brady and all of us what we are after. It is a very unwise Conservative government that lets rebellion led by any chairman of the 1922 Committee go the distance.”
Downing Street said it “continues to work closely with MPs to ensure they are able to hold the Government to account”.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We’ve been clear throughout that it is vital that we can take action to stop the transmission of the virus and protect the NHS.
“Both Houses have an opportunity to debate and scrutinise all lockdown regulations and those made under the urgent ‘made affirmative’ procedures must be approved by both Houses within 28 days.
“Members will continue to have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate future regulations.”