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PM bids to head off Tory rebellion over COVID-19 rules

Boris Johnson is bidding to head off a Tory rebellion over emergency coronavirus legislation as he prepares to give his latest update on the COVID-19 crisis from Downing Street.

The prime minister – fresh being forced to apologise for getting confused by his own coronavirus regulations – is facing the prospect of a Conservative revolt when MPs are asked to renew the emergency powers that were given to ministers to deal with the pandemic back in March.

Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, is leading an effort to alter legislation so as to allow the House of Commons to debate and vote on new COVID-19 measures before they come into force.

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There are said to be 80 Tory MPs backing Sir Graham's proposed amendment to the Coronavirus Act, with one ringleader having told Sky News he is "certain" the group has enough votes to defeat the government.

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who has recently been spotted in Westminster wearing a T-shirt declaring "2020 is the new 1984", said an "absolutely huge rebellion" was brewing.

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However, the government was still attempting to reach a compromise with the rebels, with talks due to be held between the group's leaders and Conservative chief whip Mark Spencer on Wednesday morning.

Ministers will be careful not to concede too much that might impinge on their ability to act urgently when necessary, with coronavirus cases continuing to rise in the UK.

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It was announced on Tuesday that 7,143 cases of coronavirus had been recorded in the UK over the past 24 hours – the biggest rise since the pandemic began.

Chief Whip Mark Spencer leaving Downing Street, London.
Image: Chief Whip Mark Spencer will hold talks with the Tory rebel ringleaders

Yet, even if a compromise isn't reached between the chief whip and rebels, ministers might also be saved by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle not accepting Sir Graham's proposed amendment.

Constitutional experts have said the circumstances of Wednesday's vote – which does not create new legislation but instead gives a choice over whether to continue existing law – means Sir Lindsay might be unlikely to allow any amendments.

In addition to the rebels' efforts, Mr Johnson has also been warned by a committee of senior MPs that, without a greater say for parliament over coronavirus restrictions, the government's rules could be challenged in court.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Commons liaison committee, wrote in a letter to the prime minister: "Various proposals are being made that would require the approval by a vote of the House of Commons before or immediately after new restrictions come into force.

"The majority of us support this principle and expect that the Government will also wish to accept it.

"The idea that such restrictions can be applied without express parliamentary approval, except in dire emergency, is not widely acceptable and indeed may be challenged in law."

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