Suffice to say, Chris Chope is not a popular man amongst the Parliamentary Conservative Party this morning. Guido helpfully provides screenshots of various Tory MPs sharing their thoughts on WhatsApp.
The Christchurch MP’s decision to block a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) banning ‘upskirting’ has inflicted a slew of torrid headlines on the Government, and prompted MPs to share their wider frustrations about the PMB process.
But well-earned as the vituperation may be, it will not do simply to stop at blaming Chope. There is a strong case to be made that – as Isabel Hardman argues in the Spectator – the Government has in large part brought this on itself.
Simply put, Chope and Philip Davies – the Scylla and Charybdis of parliamentary procedure – have ample form when it comes to tanking PMBs. Their attitudes and actions are not a surprise. This raises a couple of questions.
First, why did the Government allow the upskirting ban to be brought forward in such a vulnerable form? In the aftermath of yesterday’s block ministers have pledged to bring forward legislation to see it done – why couldn’t they have done that in the first place? It fits perfectly into a domestic legislative agenda led by the new Domestic Abuse Bill.
Secondly, if ministers find the ability of a small core of MPs to effectively veto these bills so terrible, why have they not taken action before now?
It’s not as if they weren’t warned. Writing on this site two years ago, Chris White offered a comprehensive look at why the Government was storing up trouble by refusing to reform the system governing PMBs. By allowing a huge number of bills to come forward, and then a small group of highly motivated MPs to talk them all out, it generates a lot of ill-will – and wastes a lot of time – for little reward.
His piece also highlights how Chope et al, whilst doubtless often deeply vexing to their parliamentary colleagues, aren’t entirely without a point, at least if we consider the issue in broader terms than this particular vote. As Hardman puts it, they object to PMBs “because they don’t think that MPs from opposition parties should be able to write laws which could cost the government money or could be very bad policy.”
Whilst this objection doesn’t obviously apply to the upskirting bill, which after all had the Government’s support, it isn’t an unreasonable concern in general. Therefore simply abolishing the filibuster would not be an adequate solution: it would allow a huge number of bills, many inevitably less worthy than the upskirting ban, to proceed through the Commons without adequate scrutiny.
Instead, as White argued, ministers should look at properly reforming the PMB system, balancing the removal of the ‘Chope veto’ by making the system more rigorous, with fewer bills coming forward after more “pre-legislative scrutiny”. Kicking the can down the road – too often this Government’s default response to a challenge – has failed it here.