“It’s a matter for the Commons” has become the stock government answer for just about everything.
Those exact words were uttered by the PM’s spokesperson in response to both the Owen Paterson question and now queries over former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s 22 hour-a-week legal job.
But with 360 seats in the House of Commons, an 80 strong majority, is parliament now synonymous with the Government?
The voting statistics say yes. This government has only been defeated four times since it was elected in December 2019. Three of these were on Labour motions in which all or most Conservatives abstained and the last a humble address in June 2020 that went through without a vote.
The lack of blemishes is thanks to the Whip system – the well oiled machine which ensures party discipline, dictated by the party leader and enforced by the Chief Whip.
By and large it is a very effective deterrent of rebellions. Since the start of this parliament, 251 Tories have at some point voted against the Government, not counting abstentions.
Seniority matters here. Of the 251, only 16 were from the 2019 intake, of which 10 were from former Labour “red wall” seats. A further 86 had only strayed the line on one occasion.
It’s no wonder Johnson is forced to pander towards the older, perhaps more traditional Conservatives who do their own thing. According to Public Whip, of the top 50 most rebellious MPs across all parties, only three were not Conservative, and only three were Conservatives who gained their seat in 2019. Two of those, Karl McCartney and XXX McCartney, had previously served from 2010 to 2017.
And of course rebellions are only effective if sufficient numbers rebel. Contrary to the values of making oneself heard, Tories are most likely to vote out of line when it’s clear the vote will go the other way anyway. The largest backbench uprisings so far in this parliament have been over Abortion and Coronavirus restrictions, which despite attracting over 50 Tory rebels, enjoyed wide opposition support and stood no chance of defeat.
Contrast that to last week’s vote on parliamentary standards and only 13 Tory members defied the three-line whip to save Owen Paterson from a 30-day Commons suspension. Although there were a number of deliberate abstentions – maybe as many as 37 after accounting for pairing and authorised absences – we’ll never know whether those MPs calculated or cowered.
The huge issue with the whip system is not that it deters party rebels as much as it appears to remove the need for some parliamentarians to scrutinise legislation at all, but simply follow party mandated instructions. It has been quoted multiple times that MPs must often “leave their heads outside the voting lobbies.” In his column in The Times last week, Iain Martin actually went further, suggesting that a number of MPs don’t actually know what they are voting for when the division bells ring.
This is extraordinary. In a parliamentary democracy, it is the legislature ie parliament that is the senior partner, rather than the executive. When voting on such critical and precedent setting issues, is it not therefore imperative that MPs understand their meaning and consequences? When you sign a contract, you must surely read it before you sign it.
Martin puts this issue down to the mundane task of voting itself, in which he says the process can become almost “mechanical”. Since the start of this parliamentary session in May, the Commons has voted 106 times, excluding votes in select committees. It works out
Perhaps for some MPs its a matter of conflicting engagements. With the now constant stream of MPs’ individual scandals flowing out from the floodgates of the Owen Paterson case, second jobs may account for why some politicians have less time for their day job.
Whether convenient or not for MPs, it is their responsibility to vote. Without passing laws, the Commons is relegated from a legislature to the status of a debating club. The real reason why some MPs don’t read the small print might be connected with the fact they feel the decision is no longer their’s, but the whim of the party to which they belong.
Let’s investigate the numbers, MPs have voted a total of 386 times (before recess) since the start of this parliament in 2019. In that time as many as 39 Conservative backbenchers have declined to vote against the majority of their party even once.
However loyalty is present on all sides of the house. A total of 321 MPs from all parties – over half of voting members – have never broken their party’s whip.
Only a small fraction go alone on a regular basis, but they are not the Conservative MPs representing former Labour “red wall” seats, but their long serving, mainly Southern, traditional, pro fiscal prudence, low tax and small government counterparts.
There are early signs that things are changing. In the vote on parliamentary standards, four Tories broke rank for the first time since they entered the Commons two years ago.
But there is little sign that its having a material impact. So called Government U-turns, which have been countless this year have always been prompted not by opposition in SW1 but by wider media coverage, Marcus Rashford and, most recently, shifts in opinion polling.
Until now, the term “It’s a matter for the Commons”, has meant anything but.