Last night, Newsnight added another thread to the pattern emerging around the possible structure for coalition talks should there be another hung parliament in May:
“Backbench Conservative MPs expect to be given a key role in any coalition talks involving their party after the next election, BBC Newsnight understands. The 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers is in discussion with Downing Street over how the party’s MPs should be consulted in any negotiations. One idea is for the committee’s chairman to be on the negotiating team.”
Of course, the Conservative leadership will only speak publicly of a majority government, but as today’s Guardian argues it would be foolish, given the state of the polls, not to prepare for something far less decisive.
As we reported last week, Downing Street is mulling its options – aware that the 2010 process not only alienated backbenchers but led to a lack of disciplined support for an agreement which many MPs felt they had no stake in.
We now understand that the preference of the backbenches is for Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, to be involved in the terms of any possible coalition agreement but not to be in the room as part of the negotiating team. In other words, he would have a major say in establishing the red lines which were deemed essential by backbench Conservative MPs, he would have the responsibility of communicating them to the negotiators beforehand and would then liaise with them as the talks went back and forth to ensure they understood what was and was not acceptable.
That is, of course, only the first line of defence for the backbenchers against a repeat of 2010. The second is the heavy implication that there must be a secret ballot of the parliamentary party to approve or reject any deal once it was hammered out.
There’s an interesting quote in Allegra Stratton’s report from an anonymous MP on this topic:
“The most important thing is that because they now know there is going to be a secret ballot of MPs on whatever coalition is agreed, the party leadership know they need to have made sure we in the wider party are happy with the content.”
It’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, Number 10 has never officially confirmed that there will be such a ballot – Brady has said that there are “protocols” which must be followed, something widely interpreted as a report of such an agreement, but the leadership will not be drawn publicly on the topic.
Second, note those three key words: “the wider party”. It is exactly the phrase a Downing Street source used to us when asked about a ballot of MPs. It is very odd that the phrase “the wider party” should only be thought of as meaning a secret ballot of MPs and not to refer to the other 150,000+ members of the Conservative Party.
We agree that the consent of “the wider party” should be necessary before we enter into any new coalition agreement – but surely that must mean a full ballot of members, not just of MPs.