It is not uncommon to find the House of Commons split on major issues of the day. The Miners’ Strike of the mid-80s and the introduction of the Community Charge, commonly known as Poll Tax, in 1990 revealed deep party political divisions between Labour and Conservative MPs, and in recent years Brexit has divided the house so acutely that only a general election could break the deadlock. COVID-19 is no different. Tory and Labour MPs tend to be split on the issue.

Conservative and Labour MPs often divided regarding COVID-19…

When asserting the relative priority of scientific or economic concerns in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, most Labour MPs (56%) believe scientific advice should be the top priority for the Government, regardless of economic factors. On the other hand, a majority of Conservative MPs (61%) say scientific advice must be balanced against its impact on the economy.

While two-thirds (64%) of Conservative MPs say the Government advice on COVID-19 has been communicated in a clear, consistent and understandable way, 78% of Labour MPs say advice coming out of Downing Street has been unclear and inconsistent.

Nine-in-ten (88%) Conservative MPs view media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic as sensationalist and scaremongering, while only a fifth (21%) of Labour MPs agree.

…but on one issue they are united

If Chinese ‘wet markets’ are confirmed as the most likely source of COVID-19, MPs of all parties believe that the UK should impose economic sanctions on China to force it to improve its animal husbandry. Despite continuing differences on most issues related to the coronavirus, MPs unite on one point, with 86% of Conservatives and 79% of Labour MPs agreeing that economic sanctions are needed to encourage China to change.

Tensions are growing between the UK and China

This apparent agreement between Conservative and Labour MPs seems to be part of a wider issue of growing tensions between the UK and China. Amidst China’s new security law imposed on Hong Kong, reports of human rights abuses against the Muslim minority Uighurs, including forced sterilisation and internment camps, and security concerns about the independence of Huawei, the UK has distanced itself from the Chinese government. With UK MPs aligned, Britain has acted quickly in recent months. It has enraged China by offering a route to UK citizenship for three million Hong Kong residents, barring Huawei from Britain’s 5G network and suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. The Chinese Ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, said the UK has interfered blatantly in China’s internal affairs and warned: “The UK will bear the consequences if it insists on going down the wrong road.”

To date, the intensifying animosity between the UK and China has been contained largely within the diplomatic and political sphere, but the conflict is poised to spill over into tit-for-tat sanctions that have a direct impact on regular people with increasing prices on everyday goods and services.

When the attitudes of politicians are united, action can happen very quickly. In the current heightened environment, there is a risk MPs allow concerns over animal husbandry in Chinese wet markets to be the spark that ignites a trade war between the UK and China.

Methodology

Populus interviewed 92 MPs between May and June 2020 online or by self-completion postal questionnaire. Results were weighted in order to ensure the sample was representative of the party composition of the House of Commons.

Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. For more information, see www.populus.co.uk


Grace Birrell

Grace joined Populus in 2019 after receiving her master’s degree in Literature from the University of Glasgow, prior to which she earned a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree from New York University. At Populus, Grace has worked on a range of mixed-methodology research projects, including stakeholder audits and public opinion pieces.