The talk of the Commons tearoom today is last night’s Opposition Day vote on Universal Credit. This is unusual: Opposition Day votes are non-binding and have recently been used largely for Labour to bang on about pet projects rather than hold the government’s feet to the fire. But the Opposition has sharpened up its act, and used growing Conservative concerns about the roll-out of the new benefit to good effect in yesterday’s debate.
The whips had already decided that one of the ways they could make these Opposition Day debates even less politically powerful when they are operating in a minority government is to instruct all Tory MPs to abstain, rendering a defeat reasonably meaningless as it would merely be Labour approving its own motion, with some of the smaller parties thrown in.
But this strategy seems to have a much shorter shelf life than previously thought. The tearoom was buzzing today with Tories annoyed that they were ordered to abstain on something that they feel is an important political topic: many of them wanted to vote for the government, but felt they couldn’t. I understand that a number of Conservatives including formerly loyal ministers have told their whips that they will ignore any future instructions - and more are planning to do so.
Tories also expressed their discomfort with the abstention policy at today’s Business Statement, with Sir Edward Leigh warning that ‘the road to tyranny is paved with Executives ignoring Parliament’.
Among their number is a man known more for rebelling to vote against the government rather than for it. Peter Bone tells Coffee House that ‘as an independently-minded MP, I’m not going to be told how to vote. But with hindsight I wish I had voted for government policy yesterday. We need to have a mechanism where if the Government is defeated ministers come back and make a proper statement on what is going to be done in relation to it.’
There are two Opposition Day debates scheduled for next Friday. One is on social care and the other supported housing. The whips aren’t exactly in the mood to be putting things to the test, so it might be that they start pretending that the policy of abstaining on everything was never a long-term decision, and instead try to contain trouble in a different way. The problem is that in a minority government, there aren’t endless options for containing trouble.