Boris Johnson is desperately working to lessen the scale of the Tory rebellion against his new coronavirus restrictions as he faces the possibility of the biggest revolt of his leadership.
The Prime Minister was expected to make a last-ditch appeal to Conservative backbenchers on the 1922 Committee shortly before the Commons vote on his Plan B measures on Tuesday, when dozens of his own MPs were threatening to rebel.
With Tories particularly angered by the mandatory introduction of Covid health certificates for large venues, Mr Johnson was also believed to be holding talks with individuals who were preparing to vote against or abstain on the restrictions.
There were indications that his efforts may be succeeding, with one ringleader, Steve Baker, saying: “I’m told numbers are dwindling.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab argued the mandatory use of Covid passes for entry to nightclubs and large venues in England was not a “big step or a slippery slope”.
He rejected MPs’ concerns about so-called “vaccine passports” because people would also be able to show a negative lateral flow test to gain entry to venues.
More than 70 Tories have expressed concerns about the Covid pass proposals – due to come into effect on Wednesday – with claims they are illogical and illiberal.
On Times Radio, Mr Raab added: “I don’t think this is a big step or a slippery slope, but I do understand the concerns and that’s why we should have a proper debate.”
After talks with the Prime Minister on Tuesday morning, one ministerial aide among those on resignation watch as he considered voting against Plan B said he would support the measures despite “big misgivings”.
The MP warned he was “profoundly concerned” about “mass surveillance” and “the segregation or punishment of people who decline medical interventions offered by the state”.
“I don’t believe that is where anyone in Government wants to go. I spoke to the Health Secretary last night and the Prime Minister this morning.”
Mr Kruger said both men “stressed that these deliberately limited measures are intended to prevent another mandatory lockdown”, and there will “never be compulsory vaccination for any citizen” or health passes not accepting negative lateral flow tests.
“On this basis – thus far and no further – I am happy to support the measures this evening,” he concluded.
And the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was his “understanding” that the idea of vaccine-only passes – as included in the Government’s original Plan B – had now been abandoned.
Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood questioned why proof of vaccination status should be considered as a condition of entry to clubs and other mass gatherings.
He acknowledged that showing a negative test result “makes sense”, but told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you can turn up with just a piece of paper, that documentation you’ve received that says you’ve had two jabs completed six months ago, that will not prevent Covid from entering a large venue.”
He added: “Leadership is about taking people to where perhaps they didn’t realise they needed to go, but they must understand the plan, and this is illogical at the moment.”
In a sign that unease about restrictions extends to the Cabinet, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg used his ConservativeHome podcast to warn: “You have to learn to live with Covid in the end. We cannot switch the economy off and on every few months.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman responded that it is “not our intention” to shut down the economy but “we are responding to this variant which has some very concerning characteristics and we know spreads much, much faster than any variant we have seen before and that has the risk of overwhelming our NHS”.
The strong emotions on the Tory benches led one MP, Marcus Fysh, to compare the introduction of Covid passes to Hitler’s Nazi regime.
“We are not a ‘papers please’ society. This is not Nazi Germany,” the MP said on Monday.
The comments were condemned by Mr Raab, whose Jewish father fled Czechoslovakia in 1938.
The Deputy Prime Minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “I don’t think comparing what we are trying to achieve to an authoritarian or Nazi regime is quite right. I think a lot of people find that crass.”