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Friday, October 20, 2017

Are the Tories turning impotence into an instrument of government?

Earlier this week the Official Opposition in the House of Commons won a vote to delay the rollout of Universal Credit. The reasons why they wish to postpone the implementation of a benefit change that is supported by all the major parties is academic for the purposes of this piece (though not for those affected). Needless to say, the Government has made a hash of administering the new payments and lots of people are suffering needlessly as a result.

The significance of this vote was that on a major plank of Government policy the Tory whips ordered their MPs to abstain. As a result the motion was won by 299 votes to zero. Nothing has changed as a result of this vote. It is merely advisory. But lots of MPs, including the Speaker himself, it appears, think that such an overwhelming majority should lead to a substantive Government climb-down.

The fact is that faced with five years without a majority, a billion pound arrangement with the DUP that only applies to budgets and confidence votes, and increasing unrest on their back benches, Tory Minister are ducking and diving to avoid any unnecessary vote that will prolong their agony. As such, when it comes to any confrontation in the Parliamentary lobbies that does not have substantial consequences for governance, they are ignoring it in the hope that it will go away.

It is impotence elevated to be an instrument of government. We are now being treated to the spectacle of a government running away from fights instead of taking them head-on, of shying away from their own policy agenda rather than promoting it.

In some instances this might be helpful, but on the whole it is bad for the country and bad for democracy. Effectively, Ministers are refusing to be accountable to Parliament for their actions by failing to put their policies to the vote. Nowhere does this matter more than on Brexit, a subject on which Ministers have a dismal record in submitting to effective scrutiny.

The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving MPs a vote on implementing Article 50, they are refusing to allow voters to have a final say on any deal they negotiate and it is not yet clear what role MPs will have in approving or rejecting such an agreement. And now the Leader of the House is delaying the committee stage of her very flawed Brexit Bill because she is afraid that her Tory backbenchers will eviscerate it.

If the King of farce, late Brian Rix had devised a play along these lines he would have been dismissed as a being an out-of-touch fantasist. Unfortunately, the only fantasists in this drama are the Government, who think they can carry on like this for another four and a half years.

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