By Dr Andrew Defty, Associate Professor
It is remarkable that after a series of U-turns on key policy announcements and the resignation of two senior members of her Cabinet, the event which may well have precipitated the Prime Minister’s resignation was a parliamentary vote on an opposition motion which the Government actually won.
To be sure, many would argue that the Prime Minister’s position was already untenable before Wednesday evening but any hopes of retaining office went downhill quickly following the chaotic mismanagement of a vote on a Labour motion on fracking. While the Labour Party may take some pleasure in contributing to PM’s downfall, much of the damage was self-inflicted.
What is an opposition day debate?
Wednesday was one of twenty afternoons set aside in each parliamentary session to debate issues raised by opposition parties. Although so-called opposition days allow the opposition to set the agenda, they rarely cause serious difficulties for a government which can command a majority in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition motion. Moreover, even if the government loses a vote on an opposition day motion, in most cases these are not considered to be binding and the government is not obliged to make any changes in response. Consequently, government’s may even choose to ignore an opposition motion entirely and not bother voting at all. Opposition days do provide an important opportunity for opposition parties to raise issues of concern and possibly to embarrass the government by forcing its MPs to vote against something which may be popular, such as extending free school meals, but can’t generally be used to force the government to take action.
Labour’s motion on fracking was slightly different in that it included a clause which would set aside the standing orders of the House of Commons, which state that the government has control over parliamentary business. The motion then allowed for the opposition to take control of the parliamentary order paper at a later date (29th November) in order to bring forward a bill which would ban the use of fracking in the UK. This was an unusual tactic but reflects a similar episode during the Brexit debates in 2019, when a group of MPs took control of the parliamentary agenda in order to bring forward a bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
This was an interesting tactic by Labour, facilitating a parliamentary vote on the standing orders which can be changed by a vote in the House, rather than seeking to press the government to take action without any real power to compel it to do so. As a result, the opposition sought to turn a non-binding opposition motion into a resolution with real effects. This meant the government could not afford simply to ignore the opposition motion and cede control of the legislative agenda to Labour.
Moreover, Labour’s decision to focus on fracking was also key. The Prime Minister had proposed lifting the ban on fracking, but this is an issue on which Conservative MPs are divided. Not only was a moratorium on fracking included in the party’s 2019 manifesto, but several Conservative MPs represent constituencies where plans for fracking have been subject to considerable local opposition. In short Labour sought to force Conservative MPs to vote against a key manifesto pledge and in favour of something which many of them oppose. By combining this with an attempt to take control of the parliamentary agenda, Labour effectively forced the government into a position in which it felt the need to whip its MPs to vote against the motion.
Three-line whips and confidence motions
While Labour might be seen to have laid a trap for the government, the chaos which followed was largely self-inflicted. The Conservative response was to issue a three-line whip, effectively compelling Conservative MPs to vote against the opposition motion or be subject to disciplinary action. Given the size of the government’s majority this should have been enough to defeat the motion. It is possible that several Conservative MPs would have abstained, some may even have decided to vote for the Labour motion, although this seems unlikely. Although this is a serious disciplinary matter, as several commentators have since observed, the penalty for abstaining on a three-line whip is unlikely to have extended to having the whip withdrawn and, if the MPs in question had particular constituency concerns, the government would usually have been sympathetic to their predicament.
However, at some point on Wednesday, the Government decided to make this a confidence motion, implying that if the government was defeated it would be forced to resign and call a general election. Although set piece votes, such as those on the Queen’s speech or the budget are generally considered to be confidence issues which the government must win, the government can declare any vote a matter of confidence. It was, however, a considerable escalation of the stakes to make a vote on an opposition motion on such a divisive issue a confidence vote.
Ironically opposition days can be used to table motions of no confidence in the government and unlike most opposition day motions these are considered binding. Given the difficulties facing the Truss government Labour may well have considered this, but perhaps dismissed the idea on the grounds that a confidence motion was more likely to unite Conservative MPs around their leader. By choosing to turn a vote on which its MPs are divided into a confidence vote, the Conservative leadership, however, managed to create a level of disruption which the Labour opposition could not hope to have achieved simply by tabling a confidence motion. MPs who might reasonably be allowed to quietly abstain on an issue which was particularly sensitive in their constituencies, were now being asked to put their own re-election chances on the line to prop up the Prime Minister.
It is not clear why the government chose to do this. One must assume that Conservative whips felt that a three-line whip was not enough to ensure victory and there was a real danger that Labour would win the vote. It is also worth considering the wider implications of a Labour victory. If Labour had been successful in seizing the agenda and bringing forward its own legislation on this issue, it might well have repeated the trick on subsequent opposition days, significantly disrupting the government’s own legislative agenda.
It’s hard to know what intelligence Conservative whips had about the scale of the potential backbench rebellion on the Labour motion but there is very little evidence that a sizeable and damaging rebellion was impending. On Wednesday afternoon less than a handful of Conservative MPs publicly stated that they could not vote with the government on this motion, and most of the dismay on Conservative benches revolved around the fact that the government had chosen to make this a confidence issue.
Confusion in the chamber and in scuffles in the lobby
The government’s problems were compounded by the handling of the issue as the day progressed. Having decided to make this already divisive issue the one on which the Truss government would survive or fall, someone in number 10 got cold feet and decided not to risk it. The minister closing the debate at the despatch box, Graham Stuart, dismayed the House by stating that ‘quite clearly, this is not a confidence vote’, repeating ‘obviously this is not a confidence vote’. Stuart was asked to clarify this by the Conservative MP, Ruth Edwards, who stated ‘many of us have been told today by our Whips that if we vote for, or abstain from voting against, this motion, we will lose the Whip.’ His response, ‘that is a matter for party managers, and I am not a party manager’ was hardly a lesson in clarity.
The effect of this was twofold. There was clearly some confusion as to whether this was a confidence issue. Stuart’s initial statement that it was not a confidence issue was arguably clear, but his follow up did little to settle the matter, particularly for MPs who had been told all day by the whips, presumably in the most robust terms, that they must vote with the government to prevent a general election. Secondly, it is apparent that this last-minute change had not been communicated to the whips, effectively undermining their authority. As Conservative MPs made their way into the division lobbies there were reports that the chief whip and the deputy chief whip had both resigned, and for several hours afterwards the government was unable to confirm if either were still in place.
There were also reports of an unseemly row between Conservative MPs in the division lobby. A groups of Conservative MPs, including cabinet members, were accused of physically manhandling at least one reluctant Conservative MP into the lobby in support of the government, prompting the speaker to launch an investigation into bullying.
To compound the confusion the card readers, which are used to record a vote as members make their way into a lobby to vote, malfunctioned, something which had also happened in a vote earlier in the day. Consequently, not all of the votes were recorded, including the Prime Minister’s and for a time, it looked as if the PM herself had not voted.
In the end the Conservatives won the vote with some ease. The Labour motion was defeated, it was later announced that the whips had not resigned, and the record was corrected to show that the Prime Minister had voted with most of the rest of her party. Thirty-two Conservative MPs abstained, although some of these will have had permission to miss the vote and will presumably have been paired with an opposition MP who was also missing. In a bizarre coda at 1.30 in the morning Downing Street issued a statement that although the vote had not been a confidence issue, it had still been a three-line whip and those who did not have a reasonable excuse for their absence would face ‘proportionate disciplinary action.’ It is not clear if this process had begun by the time the Prime Minister resigned twelve hours later.
With its fracking motion Labour presented the government with a knotty problem, which certainly required careful handling. Instead, the government contrived to alienate its own embattled backbenchers by selecting the nuclear option and making it a confidence vote. It then further alienated them by changing its position only minutes before the vote took place. The melee in the division lobby only added to the sense of confusion and lack of control at the heart of government. That the government won the vote is largely irrelevant, as in the process it lost what remaining credibility it had amongst its own MPs. The episode is a remarkable example of the importance of party management in the House of Commons and that opposition parties do not necessarily need to win a parliamentary vote in order to undermine the government.
Image Credit: UK Parliament – Jessica Taylor Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/legalcode