FORMER minister Edward Leigh is a Tory MP who combines right-wing politics with concern for constitutional norms and he isn’t happy with his government’s contempt for parliamentary decisions.
For the third time in recent weeks, Tory whips told members not to vote on an opposition motion critical of government policy for fear of exposing divisions among their own MPs or their expensively purchased DUP allies.
Speaker John Bercow warned the Tory leadership last month when they dodged scrutiny over NHS pay and tuition fee rises that parliamentary votes cannot be “treated lightly.”
He cautioned that, if such tactics become a regular feature, it will be “a matter of widespread concern.”
The Speaker’s warning was disregarded on Wednesday evening, causing him to explain that being on the wrong end of a 299-0 vote cannot be interpreted by the government as not losing simply because they fled the battlefield.
Leigh was more forthright, warning that his government was setting a dangerous precedent and that “the road to tyranny is paved by executives ignoring parliaments.”
His colleague Peter Bone added that the government “cannot ignore the will of the House.”
Bercow, Leigh, Bone and others are right to highlight the constitutional aspect to government skulduggery, but political realities loom large.
Theresa May and her team have not disregarded Commons votes on three crucial issues because they feel secure in doing so. Precisely the opposite.
Despite their corrupt deal with the DUP, their Commons majority is not secure. There is an ever-present menace of Tory MPs buckling under constituent pressure or of the DUP withdrawing support.
Many DUP voters depend on benefits and would not appreciate their MPs backing measures condemning them to weeks without payment, lack of food and rent arrears. Such realities create a situation in which, as shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams points out, Theresa May is in office but not in power.
Her own decisions are partly responsible, but a major contributory factor has been the style of opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn, his front-bench team and the great majority of Labour MPs who accept that their previous misgivings about the party leader’s qualities were wrong and are backing him fully.
Corbyn’s strategy has diverged from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls’s New Labour Lite in favour of a clear class line, defending working-class living standards, rejecting attacks on claimants and championing trade union membership and activity.
Labour’s small parliamentary neoliberal tendency — MPs who act as freelances rather than joining the collective — decry Corbyn’s class line, claiming that a more measured approach, involving co-operation with Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs, could moderate government extremism.
Neither Chris Leslie’s joint authorship of amendments with Kenneth Clarke, Chuka Umunna’s vainglorious single market amendment to the Queen’s Speech nor any other “meet us halfway” proposal has attracted a single Tory MP to abandon the mothership.
Yet Labour’s uncompromising assault on the inhumanity of the Tories’ Universal Credit scheme forced Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke to drop the 55p-a-minute benefit helpline charge.
It also encouraged Dr Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons health committee, to defy the whips and back Labour’s motion.
Her more timid colleagues who criticise the government scheme but submit to whip pressure may yet, once aware of their voters’ views, take the plunge.
That’s what worries May and what should spur an emboldened labour movement to pose fresh challenges to her insecure government.