Boris Johnson is expected to avoid a major Conservative party rebellion in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday that is seeking to introduce tougher coronavirus lockdown measures in England.
The new restrictions, due to come into force on Thursday and set to last until December 2, will require non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants to close. But unlike the nationwide lockdown earlier this year, schools, universities and nurseries will remain open.
Mr Johnson’s government was expected to face a significant backbench rebellion, following widespread disapproval among Tory MPs at Number 10’s handling of the announcement over the weekend. A growing number of MPs also say the measures are draconian.
There has also been disquiet from some scientists and MPs over the government’s use of one scientific model at the weekend which predicted there could be 4,000 deaths a day at the peak of a second wave of the virus.
The government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty on Tuesday defended their use of the data, dismissing the suggestion the forecasts had been used to scare the public into supporting the new measures.
Sir Patrick said: “There’s a balance between trying to explain what may be coming, basing things as far as possible on what data we have today, but giving illustration of what may happen in the future.”
Last month, 42 Tories voted against the government on a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. But MPs who remain unhappy about restrictions have accepted there may be no alternative this time and that a backbench rebellion is unlikely to change the government’s attitude.
Although some leading figures such as Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, have publicly voiced their concerns, senior party officials now said the rebellion could be as small as 20 MPs.
Steve Baker, former Brexit minister, was seen by Downing Street as a key figure in defusing a potential revolt and was given a special briefing by Mr Johnson’s officials on Saturday in an attempt to win him over. Mr Baker took soundings from his own scientific advisers.
Mr Baker, a leading organiser of the “lockdown sceptic” group of Tory MPs, was said by Conservative colleagues to have been persuaded of the case for the lockdown. He declined to comment.
A number of other naturally sceptical Tory MPs said they would reluctantly follow the Number 10 advice and back the lockdown. “When you face the prospect of hundreds of people dying in your constituency, you have to be pretty sure,” said one former minister.
One senior member of the Johnson government added: “The last person who wants to do this lockdown is the prime minister so it’s widely accepted that this action is absolutely necessary. Most MPs understand that.”
Another minister said the Labour party’s decision to back the government in Wednesday’s vote had reduced the rebellion. “The measures are going to pass, so why rebel? There’s only so many people who are willing to vote against the government to make a point.”
The government case for lockdown was bolstered by new polling on Tuesday that showed widespread public support for the lockdown. According to YouGov, 72 per cent of English adults support the lockdown — including 73 per cent of Conservative voters.
The survey also suggested that 30 per cent said there should be stronger measures, with 41 per cent stating they were “about right”. Just 20 per cent said they went “too far”.
Although the November lockdown is expected to garner the support of a clear majority of Tory MPs, one rebel predicted an extension would meet widespread opposition. “People will put up with this lockdown, but they won’t accept another,” said a senior MP.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.