Government Continues To Throw Parliamentary Toys Out Of The Pram

Government Continues To Throw Parliamentary Toys Out Of The Pram

Those who voted Leave in the referendum citing a desire to regain "parliamentary sovereignty" as their main reason must look in horror at the events of recent times. Since the less-than-landslide General Election, government has tried every trick in the book to ensure that whatever Parliament is, it ain't sovereign. As they have no genuine majority in Parliament, they are simply ignoring the fact that it is supposed to be the body that shapes the country, and that policy and the laws generated from that policy should get Parliamentary approval.

Government this week ignored, for the third time since the election, an Opposition Day motion which went against them. This time it was a motion to pause the rollout of Universal Credit - a flagship Tory policy that many of their own MPs see as grossly unfair. To avoid an embarrassing defeat(...) they put their strongest sanction, a three-line whip, into abstaining, not even voting against the motion - because they knew there was a chance some Tory rebels could, erm, rebel (one did).

In the Parliamentary game, in order to have a division when one side calls a motion, at least two people have to shout "NO". Also you need two people to act as tellers for each side, who count and verify the votes but don't have a vote themselves. None of this is usually a problem in a normal run of Parliament, because both sides play ball. In this instance, the opposition benches actually had to have their own people "oppose" their own motion to cause a division (again, due to the odd way all this works, those people couldn't then vote in favour of it in the division, but they could abstain). Also the Opposition benches had to provide all the tellers. Government had simply thrown all their Parliamentary toys out of the pram and refused to play. They lost the vote 299 votes to 0, Tory MP Sarah Wollaston voting with the opposition.

However, after the vote, the Leader of the House said "these kinds of votes are non-binding so we can ignore them" (somewhat overlooking the fact that the biggest non-binding vote of this century was the Referendum - and they're not ignoring that are they?).

Government wasn't the only group to ignore this outcome after the vote - media outlets were strangely keen to follow suit. Reading major online news, you'd be hard pressed to spot that the government had suffered its third Parliamentary defeat since the Election, and only the fourth since 2009 (settlement rights for Ghurkas under Gordon Brown as PM, thanks for asking).

This is the BBC Politics homepage on the morning after the government was defeated in Parliament on its flagship proposal: -

Spot the Government Defeat (you can't, it's not there)

It seems government are happy to be absolutely crushed in motion after motion rather than vote in them and risk being narrowly defeated. Which is fine as long as you don't enrage the Speaker in the process (who has a lot of power to make life difficult for government). Some on the government side were actually trying to convince the Speaker that this shouldn't be considered the "will of the house" because they hadn't voted. It's like playing a football match but not actually going on the pitch, then saying the opposition's hatful of goals don't count because you weren't there. Needless to say Mr Bercow was having none of it.

In a Parliament with a decent majority these votes usually are listened to and do have an effect. A closer than expected opposition vote is taken as a sign that the policy is flawed and needs some rework, even though a large majority government would obviously defeat any Opposition motion. And with Universal Credit there'll no doubt be some changes announced in the Budget, money permitting. But the current government is so fragile that they can't accept a defeat and can't even risk one, or the whole House of Cards could collapse (Note to self: there's probably a TV series in this drama - must try to think of a name for it).

In Thursday's session, Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh bravely spoke up in Parliament about government's disdain for norms, saying "The road to tyranny is paved with executives ignoring Parliaments". Though fortunately for them he did this after obediently abstaining from the vote he was complaining about them abstaining from. He must be trying to emulate that famous advocate of consuming, while simultaneously retaining, foodstuffs.

Sir Edward did make a good point though - government has potentially opened Pandora's box with this. If/when there's a future Labour government that is defeated in a Commons vote, do they return to the moral high ground, accept the Will of the House and amend their plans, or do they proceed with the new norm that it's fine to ignore Parliamentary votes which they don't like? Further, will the current government continue to ignore them for as long as it lasts?

Truly the road to tyranny. And not what many would call Parliamentary Sovereignty.


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