Obviously the Government’s discipline is a mess. If anything, with Cabinet ministers disregarding three-line whips without consequence, ministers merrily voting for the revocation of Article 50, and repeated rebellions every which-way, “a mess” doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a “mess” in the sense that John Bercow could be described as “slightly pleased with himself”.
But we know all about that – if the Prime Minister’s situation wasn’t already clear enough, having to resort to promising to leave in order to try to rally support underlined it vividly. She’s running on fumes, and little else.
What’s perhaps less remarked upon is the state of discipline and whipping on the Opposition benches. Labour is, supposedly, gearing up to seize power, and ought still to be in the honeymoon period for its leader. Opposition, particularly against a troubled government, ought to be a situation where authority is amassed.
Instead, though, there are some pretty extraordinary gaps which appear to be widening. Consider this week’s ‘Indicative Votes’ (which indicated to exactly the same degree as the ‘Meaningful Votes’ have carried meaning).
On the second referendum motion, Labour whipped its MPs to vote in favour. But 27 of them voted against, while a further 18 defied the whip by not voting. One of those who abstained on that motion was Ian Lavery, the Chairman of the Labour Party. Other frontbenchers joined him, apparently without consequence. One shadow minister – Melanie Onn – resigned to vote against a second referendum.
The ultimate test of the leadership’s authority came on Motion K – where Labour not only whipped in favour, but subtly put it in Jeremy Corbyn’s name and summarised it as “Labour’s alternative plan” for Brexit. Even here, however, there was open discontent. Seven Opposition MPs – ranging in opinion from Kate Hoey to Owen Smith – failed to vote at all, while a further four voted against.
Obviously Brexit is a very emotive and controversial topic for many Labour MPs, which pulls their party in several directions. It has cut across all parties to one degree or another (even the robotically obedient SNP have some disagreements on the topic in private). But it’s fascinating that just when Corbyn ought to be revelling in the fast and politically terminal decline of his opponent, and capitalising on Conservative weaknesses, his authority over his party and even his frontbench is still so wobbly.
That raises two possibilities. First, it might get worse. And second, the leadership will presumably seek to reassert itself at some point – perhaps calling once again on its massed grassroots support base. Neither is a happy prospect for Labour.