An influential Conservative MP has warned Boris Johnson that he faces a challenge to his leadership unless he scraps all remaining coronavirus restrictions at the end of this month and vows they will not return.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, the chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers, warned that “prime ministers are on a performance-related contract” and that MPs are asking themselves whether Mr Johnson is the best-placed leader to help them retain their seats at the next election.
He told the Financial Times that the prime minister would be in trouble after May’s local elections unless he has shown that he can change his approach.
Mr Harper said it was time to accept that Covid-19 will become endemic in the UK and to focus on treatments, the vaccination of hesitant people and the creation of special wards in hospitals, while ruling out any further controls on social and economic life.
“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 told the FT. “That’s not a sustainable position.”
Mr Harper – who stood against Johnson for the leadership in 2019 – said that if the PM attempts to extend Plan B restrictions beyond the scheduled review date of 26 January, he will face a rebellion larger than the one seen in December when 99 Tories opposed Covid passes.
“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.”
If Tories do badly in the May elections and continue to trail Labour in the polls, Conservative MPs will ask themselves which potential leader is best able to help them keep their seats, said Mr Harper.
And he added: “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.”