Labour are still borrowing from the ‘Block Brexit’ rulebook

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In other news, evil Tory MPs voted to freeze the poorest families in the country to death by opposing Labour’s plans to scrap VAT on energy bills.

In fact, so bereft of a moral compass are the Conservative Party that when one lone, valiant MP on the government benches dared to abandon her party’s crusade against decency and niceness, and voted with the Labour opposition, she had the party whip withdrawn. 

Are there no lows to which this government will not stoop?

Well, so much for the spin following Tuesday’s decisive 90-seat margin of defeat for Labour’s opposition day motion. On hearing that Anne Marie Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot, had lost her party’s whip, it could have been understandably assumed that the government chief whip was pursuing a new, rigorous disciplinary policy under which no dissent would be tolerated. Such an illiberal departure from parliamentary tradition would not reflect well on the governing party, however many defeats it might avoid in the chamber.

But Ms Morris was not suspended for voting for a cut in VAT. The rest of her Conservative colleagues did not vote against lower energy bills, and to describe last night’s vote in such terms is a perversion of the truth.

Labour’s opposition day motion, in fact, guaranteed its own defeat and effectively closed off any opportunity of attracting rebel Conservative MPs’ support. For its central proposition was not just to scrap VAT but to remove from the government the right to set the agenda of House of Commons business.

This little trick has been tried before, with the same spin and nonsense attached to those Tory MPs who supported it. As the Tantrum Parliament drew to a close in 2019 and opposition MPs, enraged about the government’s determination to honour the result of the 2016 EU referendum, spewed their phlegm-infused insults across the chamber at Boris Johnson, a clever (too clever by half, it might be said) tactic was born. 

With the connivance of the then Remain-supporting Speaker, pro-EU procerduralists contrived a vote on a motion that would remove the government’s right to dictate the Commons agenda. Now, to many, this might give the appearance of democracy: if a majority of MPs want to change the rule that says that government business must have precedence at every sitting, then what’s wrong with that?

The word “existential” is used far too frequently and too hyperbolically, but in this case it is apt: if a government loses control of the parliamentary agenda, it cannot hope to govern. It’s as simple as that.

Those voting for the measure agreed with this; it is why they supported it. 21 Conservative MPs who (entirely coincidentally, of course) also opposed Brexit, voted with the massed ranks of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs to remove the ability of the Conservative minority administration to legislate. When those 21 were suspended from the party whip, it was widely reported that they had been punished for “voting against Brexit”. This was only a small part of the true story; they were in fact suspending for voting for a measure that would have utterly neutered their own government.

Such motions — which, judging by last night’s debate will now become a regular part of the opposition’s armoury — are indeed existential to any government. Knowing this, Labour must have used it deliberately to minimise the number of government rebel MPs who might otherwise have been tempted to support the VAT cut. This plays into their preferred narrative that (almost) every Tory MP voted against the interests of hard-pressed constituents. 

Put another way, there are no circumstances in which the whips office under a Labour government would not have behaved in exactly the same way, whatever the ostensible subject which the temporary abolition of the government’s right to command the Commons is aimed at promoting.

By using this tactic, Labour is admitting that it never intended to win the vote and is settling for a public relations win instead. If it really wanted to attract cross-party support it would never have invoked a tactic that brought the House into disrepute in 2019 and which led directly to Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority a few weeks later.

Anne Marie Morris may — unlike her unfortunate predecessors whose rebellion landed them outside the Commons — have the whip returned to her in time. But no party can tolerate their MPs voting to hobble their own government, however virtuous that vote makes them feel. If MPs unhappy with the chancellor’s reluctance to scrap VAT on energy bills want to avoid the judgment of their constituents, they should make greater efforts to expose Labour’s cynicism. A vote against the motion was not a vote against scrapping VAT, just as a vote for it was only tangentially about doing so.

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