The Prime Minister is ‘a legislative quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down and reliant on uncaring backbench carers for the most basic of his parliamentary needs’. And the Conservative Party is ‘bleeding to death’ over the issue of Europe.
The first of those quotes comes from Matthew Norman in the Independent. And he wasn’t talking about David Cameron and his difficulties with Dominic Raab’s amendment yesterday, but Gordon Brown, in April 2008, when the Labour government was forced to cave in over tax policy in the face of backbench opposition. The second comes from Tristan Garel-Jones, talking about the Maastricht Bill in 1992.
All of which does go to remind you that there’s nothing very new about Prime Ministers getting into difficulty with their backbenchers. And there’s especially nothing very new about Conservative Prime Ministers getting into difficulty with their backbenchers over Europe.
Yvette Cooper reacted to yesterday’s vote by declaring that she could “think of no precedent for government ministers abstaining on an amendment that they oppose because they are scared of their backbenchers”. We can. Because this isn’t the first time the Conservatives have done this, ordering ministers to abstain and allowing a free vote for backbenchers. They now repeatedly do so over backbench business (which they had begun the parliament whipping, only to give up doing so when it became obvious how much difficulty they were getting into), and at the beginning of this session, they even ducked a vote on an amendment to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, similarly making it a free vote for backbenchers.
Yet the Raab amendment wasn’t declaratory as these earlier votes were; it was an amendment to a bill. And whilst it is common to see governments – of all colours – say they are disinterested in particular votes on pieces of legislation by allowing free votes, this was an amendment which the government had said was unworkable. Parties in government do not usually declare themselves disinterested in unworkable legislation.
You can see why they took the decision they did, however. With no idea how Labour would vote (that was only made clear very late in the day), they feared a defeat – and reasoned (correctly, we think) that defeats generate worse media coverage than capitulations. The Conservative MPs who backed the Raab amendment may not have been ‘rebelling’ in a formal sense, but of the 87 (including two tellers) who did so, all but eight have rebelled on whipped votes before. Almost certainly, had there been a whip most would have chosen to defy it.
For us, one of the most interesting – but thus far largely unremarked on – bits of the vote was that there was no government position. The Conservatives may have decided to abstain, but the Liberal Democrats were whipped to vote down the amendment, and joined Labour in doing so. As we’ve noted before, the Coalition agreement explicitly allowed for the two parties to behave differently on certain issues – nuclear power and student fees – but they have more recently done so on other votes, and this was yet another example.
So what exactly was the position of Her Majesty’s Government on this issue? Answer: it depends which bit of Her Majesty’s Government you talk to.