Oppositions have two main weapons: words and Parliamentary votes. Yesterday, Theresa May underlined how tenuous her majority really is by making sure that her troops only vote on legislation, not words. With the DUP signalling it would vote with Labour, the PM decided her party would not oppose the Opposition Day motions on either an NHS pay rise or on tuition fees. Crucially, that meant there was no vote recorded other than unanimous approval, and no way to say how individual MPs voted.
And this was no one-off. In a significant shift in the way the Government treats the Commons, Tory sources told me they have decided not to oppose any future Opposition Day motions. In other words, MPs can say whatever they like but as long as there’s a non-binding motion, the PM will tell her troops to give a collective ‘meh’. Government whips will instead focus on turning out the numbers for “votes that matter”, ie on legislation such as Brexit bills.
The change is an extension of David Cameron’s edict in 2011 that he wouldn’t whip his MPs on backbench business debates. With late-night, knife-edge votes expected over the next five years on much more important things, the view among ministers is now that they want to give their MPs a break on Opposition ‘stunts’ designed to tell voters how nasty the Tories are. In effect, they’ve decided to walk off the pitch and take the ball with them, leaving the other team with an empty goal but no chance to score.
On one level, this is brutally cynical but effective personnel management. It reduces all Opposition Days to mere debating society events, with no consequence. As I wrote yesterday, many MPs are weary of their inboxes being bombarded with online petitions and campaign groups claiming they should or shouldn’t back a particular motion. Their ‘TheyVoteForYou’ ranking will no longer include ‘votes against’ various Labour (or SNP, LibDem, Green or DUP) proposals. In future, Opp Day motions will be the verbal equivalent of Early Day Motions, mere symbolism.
Yet critics believe last night was a black day for Parliament. They say this is not some procedural navel-gazing, but all about the respect that the executive should show the legislature. EDMs, 10-minute rule bills, Opposition Day, Westminster Hall and backbench business debates are all meant to provide mechanisms whereby non-Government voices are heard but also used to influence policy. Ministers are supposed to worry about their outcome, but it looks like they won’t any more.
Labour’s Angela Rayner said that May was ‘running scared’ of Parliament. Kevin Brennan raised the fascinating prospect of some Labour MPs taking the Government’s place in opposing a motion, just to allow a division. That could result in a series of 262-0 votes. Labour says this latest contempt for the Commons is of a piece with May’s ‘power grab’ on standing committees, on the EU Withdrawal Bill’s Henry VIII powers and refusal to allow time for Opposition debates. Many Tories will shrug and say ‘suck it up, we’ve got a working majority’. But some may think it’s just not cricket. The biggest winners of all, again, are the DUP – who can vote how they like while getting that big £1bn for Northern Ireland. Speaker Bercow has an interview with the Institute for Government today (where Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom is set to appear), so he may share his views on the new Government approach.