98 Conservative Lawmakers Oppose Boris Johnson, Vote Against COVID Vaccine Passports

Almost 100 Conservative British lawmakers voted against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's COVID-19 measure requiring people to show vaccine passports to enter nightclubs and other venues.

Though opposition support was able to successfully pass the measure and enact it Wednesday, the defiance may signal future troubles for Johnson's COVID-19 response and hold on his own political party.

The Omicron variant of the virus has been spreading quickly across Britain, and the strain is now dominant in London, according to Kevin Fenton, London's public health chief. The nation recorded 78,610 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, its highest daily pandemic total yet, and officials said that infections are doubling roughly every two days.

Johnson's government has been backing new restrictions like the one enacted Wednesday to help battle the "grave threat" of Omicron's rapid spread that threatens to overwhelm hospitals. But some Conservative lawmakers aren't as leery of the variant and oppose more pandemic restrictions.

On Tuesday, when more than 60 Conservatives also voted against a vaccine mandate for all health care workers, some looked to make a statement against Johnson and his leadership, by refusing to support his vaccine passport measure.

"It was a very clear message that colleagues are not happy with how the government is operating at the moment," Mark Harper, one of the 98 Conservative lawmakers who refused to back the measure, told Times Radio. "The team captain should be able to depend on the loyalty of the team, but it's a two-way street."

Johnson COVID Measures
Nearly 100 Conservative British lawmakers oppose Prime Minister Boris Johnson's COVID-19-fighting measure mandating people to show vaccine passports for nightclubs and other venues. The measure passed, but the defiance may signal future trouble for Johnson. Above, Johnson records an address to the nation at Downing Street, London, on Dec. 12, 2021. Kirsty O'Connor/Pool via AP

Tuesday's rebellion by 98 Conservative lawmakers on vaccine certificates was by far the biggest of Johnson's premiership, and an echo of the serial revolts that ousted his predecessor, Theresa May. More than 60 Tory legislators also voted against mandating vaccinations for all health care workers.

Johnson's government argues that restrictions are needed because the sheer scale of the Omicron surge is ominous.

Still, some on the Conservative Party's right wing don't believe the dire warnings, and don't like the "nanny state" measures the pandemic has brought. In Tuesday's vote, they were joined by others wanting to send a warning to a prime minister whose approval ratings have plummeted amid policy U-turns and ethics scandals.

Any further coronavirus restrictions look certain to face strong resistance from Conservatives, leaving Johnson reliant on the opposition to get them approved.

"The prime minister is so weak that without Labour votes last night, vital public health measures wouldn't have got through," Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Wednesday during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

"His MPs are wrong to vote against basic health measures, but they are not wrong to distrust him," Starmer added.

The Conservatives chose Johnson as their leader in 2019 because the blustering, Latin-spouting former London mayor was anything but a typical politician. He'd been fired from a party job for lying, used racist and offensive language in columns and quips — but he was upbeat, entertaining and a hit with voters.

Johnson promised to "get Brexit done" after three years of gridlock over Britain's departure from the European Union. He won a big victory in the December 2019 election by winning over voters in England's "red wall," a belt of former industrial towns that had long been Labour strongholds.

The pandemic knocked Johnson off course. His initial reluctance to impose a nationwide lockdown in early 2020 helped give the U.K. the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe apart from Russia, with more than 146,000 deaths.

A successful vaccination program helped Johnson recover some of his authority, but a slew of damaging allegations has tarnished him.

First there was an expensive refurbishment of the prime minister's official Downing Street apartment, funded by a Conservative donor. Johnson was cleared of wrongdoing over the "cash for curtains" affair, but the party was fined by Britain's political regulator.

Then the government faced charges of cronyism when it tried to block the suspension of Owen Paterson, a Conservative lawmaker found to have broken lobbying rules.

Most damaging are allegations that staff in Johnson's office flouted coronavirus rules with lockdown-breaching Christmas parties last year, when others were banned from gathering. Johnson has ordered an inquiry, but insists he personally broke no rules.

It all adds up to a dangerous moment for Johnson.

Starmer is working to restore Labour's fortunes after the party suffered four consecutive election defeats, and it has recently opened up a lead in opinion polls.

Danny Finkelstein, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said Conservative lawmakers' "large-scale open rebellion against government policy on the most important question of the day" amounted to a vote of no-confidence in the government.

"How long can such a position endure?" he asked in The Times of London.

A special election on Thursday for the North Shropshire parliamentary seat, formerly held by lobbying-scandal lawmaker Paterson, could add to Conservative jitters. Polls suggest the opposition Liberal Democrats have a chance of winning what has long been a staunchly Conservative district.

Britain is not scheduled to hold a national election until 2024, so Johnson may have time to recover. His popularity could rise if the Omicron wave washing over the U.K. is not as bad as many fear, and Johnson meets his goal of offering all adults a booster vaccine by New Year's Eve.

The Conservatives have a long history of dumping leaders they consider liabilities. Several ministers — notably Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — are already being discussed as possible replacements.

Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Johnson "looks much weakened, but it's not clear to me if he is fatally weakened."

"He still has some quite biggish advantages, particularly if you're a red wall Conservative looking at who can get people to turn out for the Conservatives again," she said. "Is Liz Truss, is Rishi Sunak, really going to bring them flocking to the ballot boxes in the way that Johnson's star quality does? That's not so clear."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ninety-eight Conservative British lawmakers vote against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's COVID-19 measure calling for people to show vaccine passports to enter venues. The measure passed, but the opposition could spur future problems for Johnson. Above, masked-up commuters walk from a tube station in London on Nov. 30, 2021. Alastair Grant/AP Photo

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