Why did six Conservative MPs vote for Labour’s motion on Universal Credit yesterday? Back comes the obvious answer: because they agreed with it. But for Tory MPs to support an Opposition Day motion unsupported by their own party was taboo until recently. What’s changed?
The explanation is a story of changing times – of new technology, more aggressive campaigning, Government ducking and diving and, most worryingly for Boris Johnson, the declining power of the whips.
Perhaps the best place to start is with such websites as TheyWorkForYou, the Public Whip and My Society, which record MPs votes. These are inevitable, given the rise of the net and, in essence, a good thing.
However, a problem is baked into any bald summary of which lobby an MP goes through – namely, that it can’t show context. For example, a motion may seek to raise the pay of NHS workers.
But there might be more in it than a simple declaration that such pay should increase. For example, it could propose five per cent; it could propose fifty per cent. We exaggerate to make a point, but it holds nonetheless.
As time has passed since 2010, Government MPs, which has usually meant Conservative ones, have come under increasing fire from campaigners and other parties over how they vote. Often, the trigger has been votes without context.
The power of that fire has been multiplied many times over by social media, well known now for taking few measures to curb posts that libel, threaten or incite. We call in evidence Nadine Dorries’ piece on this site about her experience on Twitter.
“I want to see you, trapped in a burning car and watch as the heat from the flames melts the flesh from your face,” it began, before detailing how she felt compelled to move out of her own home and barely come into her own office.
Now, most constituents don’t abuse their MPs. They are under no obligation to mull context before firing off an e-mail or booking an appointment. And it is right for Parliamentarians to be held to account.
But MPs would scarcely be human not to yearn for evasive action, especially given the worst of social media, and the Government front bench duly provided it.
Our example of a motion about NHS workers’ pay was not plucked out of the air. Back in 2017, Labour tabled Opposition Day motions calling for NHS workers to receive a pay rise of more than one per cent, and to scrap plans to increase tuition fees to £9,250.
Instead of voting against them, Government MPs abstained. Hey presto; problem solved. No vote recorded of voting against more money for nurses and lower fees for students. Happy days.
Too good to be true? Of course. For Government abstentions meant that the Opposition motions passed. And since they have no binding power, Ministers simply ignored them.
One view is that this flouting of the rules of the game was unsportsmanlike: no more, no less. Another is that it called into question the operability of the game itself – that’s to say, the proper functioning of Parliament.
It is part of the story of how Labour, aided and abbeted by John Bercow, came to utilise the gambit of the Humble Address, which the Government must take account of.
At any rate, it is unsustainable to ignore votes in Parliament – at least, not without consequences. One of these is that the lobby groups and campaigners now pile pressure on Government MPs not to abstain on Opposition Day Motions.
So it came about that six Conservative MPs voted for Labour’s motion yesterday on Universal Credit: Peter Aldous, Stephen Crabb, Robert Halfon, Jason McCartney, Ann Marie Morris and Matthew Offord.
Perhaps the Government should have whipped against the motion. With its majority of 80, it would have won – and so had no awkward questions to answer about flouting the will of Parliament.
However, the number of votes against it, plus abstentions, would have been higher. Heads you lose, tails you lose. And there is more to what happened yesterday than Parliamentary procedure and gambits.
Select committees electing their own chairmen, a long decline in the old military loyalist culture, the dispersion of MPs because of Covid…the list of reasons for the decline in whips’ power are many.
The very latest one is the increasing boldness of the new “research groups” – taking their cue from the trailblazer, the European Research Group. The Northern Reseach Group has called for Universal Credit extension for as long as the pandemic is in place.
Downing Street’s handling of backbenchers could certainly be better. Nothing infuriates them more than the poor bloody infantry going “over the top” for the Government, as Tory parlance has it…only to turn, and see that their officers aren’t braving enemy fire too.
Indeed, some backbenchers complain that by U-turning – as Downing Street eventually did on Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals – Ministers end up assailing their own troops with “friendly fire”.
Some now say that the Prime Minister should tell Rashford where to get off; others, that he should listen to him more. We’ve long argued that an Andrew Mackay-type fixer (certainly) and a Whips Office shake-up (probably) would help to soothe nerves.
But if MPs are determined to be independent-minded, no institutional change will stop them. That’s good for their constituents, at least in the short term. Whether it’s good for the country in the longer is less certain.
Has today’s generation of Conservative MPs, elected on a platform of delivering Brexit and Johnsonian “boosterism”, got the appetite for the tax and spending discipline that must underpin any operable government – as its 2010 predecessor intake did?
Indeed, is it prepared to hold out on any contentious issue at all? It has already scuppered the Government’s housing plans. Will it vote for the proposed cut in overseas aid? With Ministers today against giving our judges the power to revoke trade deals? Would it vote for tax rises – in the event of the public finances collapsing, or indeed at all? There is a lot more to yesterday’s rebellion than six backbenchers.