The Labour leader is weighing up whether to ask MPs to vote for the government’s new local lockdowns on Tuesday, as England prepares to move out of national measures.
But HuffPost UK has learned “around 20 MPs” want to break ranks and vote against the reintroduction of tiers 1, 2 and 3 – refusing even to abstain.
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck is among them and believes Starmer should offer MPs a free vote.
She wants the government “to come up with something better” and would prefer a system in which Covid-secure hospitality venues stay open, while the vulnerable are protected and mass testing rolled out.
The MP says she, and others, voted for the second national lockdown “through gritted teeth”, fearing the impact on the economy would grow.
“We can no longer sit on our hands and keep approving measures if we don’t agree,” she said. “We need to make a stand here.
“We understand there is a risk to public health but what the government is doing isn’t good enough.
“The public like simple, clear messaging. They understand masks and the rule of six, for example, not an ever-changing cycle of different tiers.
“People are just giving up and the government has lost their confidence.”
She said she had spoken with many distraught business-owners from her constituency in recent days.
“We know this is a public health crisis but we can’t just abstain and leave it to the government,” she said. “We are MPs and part of our job is making difficult decisions.”
Another senior Labour MP said they were “very concerned” about the tiers, but added: “To vote against the tier system and see it fall would mean no restrictions at all. That’s the problem.”
But they insisted: “The tier system as it stands is unacceptable.”
The prime minister’s argument is that a sliding scale of restrictions will control local outbreaks and avoid the need for a third blanket lockdown.
The Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, led by Steve Baker and former whip Mark Harper, reject further lockdown measures.
While the system is still expected to pass, scores of Johnson’s MPs are preparing to revolt, meaning it could be an uncomfortable event for both leaders.
“It reminds me very much of the Brexit debate in that it has become very polarised and everyone is thinking about their own constituencies,” Lewell-Buck added.
Labour MP for Leeds Richard Burgon suggested he wanted to see tougher measures enforced, adding he would vote down the tiers system.
He said in a Facebook post on Monday there was not enough support for businesses in tier 3, adding: “The government’s proposed new restrictions repeat the errors of the past and I will not be voting for them on Tuesday.”
He adds the “proposed approach risks causing yet more harm to both public health and the economy”.
“The new tier system will not only fail to drive the virus levels down, but there’s a real risk that taking the foot off the brake over the coming weeks will undermine the gains made by the current lockdown,” he said. “That will make a third wave and yet another lockdown much more likely in the new year.
“A sustained economic recovery simply isn’t possible if we’re having to constantly move in and out of restrictions.”
Labour is yet to make a decision on whether to support the government.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy suggested in an interview on Sunday that Labour was trying to get more financial support from the government for businesses before agreeing to back tiers.
She did not rule out backing the government or abstaining, however, saying: “We’ve never voted against health restrictions.
“All the way through this virus it’s been absolutely clear that we need health restrictions.”