Majorities and a Meaningful Vote

by Pete Wishart

It was Norman Lamont who said of the equally disastrous John Major Government ‘we give the impression of being in office but not in power’. Such is the situation with this Government they don’t even give the impression of being in office! Never before has such overwhelming shambles characterised a Government’s approach to running the country. The tenuous majority they secured with the £1 billion DUP bung seems to be abandoned as the DUP vote against the Government. As the sound of ‘never’ reverberates from the opposition lobby this must be the worst political investment in history. How this Government must wish that they had included some small print which obliged the DUP to hand back the cash if they voted against them.

With no majority the Government are now very reluctant to test the will of the House. Last week the SNP got through two amendments in the Finance Bill on tax avoidance and fixed odd betting terminals because the Government dare not face defeat. They are prepared to face the indignity of accepting opposition amendments to crucial bills rather than lose a vote. They are now in the position where they are barely capable of running the country.

It is in this very tenuous minority situation they now have to put the most important vote of recent times to Parliament. With the EU having approved their Brexit deal it now comes to the House of Commons to give its view and we will now have our say on the 12th December. The Government are therefore doing everything possible to restrict Parliament to a binary choice of their bad deal or no deal. They are doing this even though there is no majority in the House for neither of these options. The real battle of what we eventually vote on is quickly becoming the first big battle in the House of Commons on this ‘meaningful vote’.

Because of the delicacy of the situation the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons were charged with investigating this and they detailed three possible options. Follow the usual practice of the House, to allow the Speaker to call more than one amendment for decision at the end of debate. This would allow the House to determine the process and secure the maximum number of options. This is option is hotly contested by the Government. The second is the Government’s preferred option to have the vote on their deal put first and only consider amendments if it fails. The last option is to have an almost pointless set of indicative votes on amendments to test the will of the House.

What is crucial is that the House must be able to express its view and consider the deal on the basis of whatever it chooses. There are signs that the Speaker (usually responsible for the selection of amendments) is growing increasingly exasperated with the Government insistence of the binary choice of the ‘devil or the deep blue sea’ and the incredible stand off between him and the Leader of the House on this was something else.

Such as its importance that the outcome of this piece of procedure could determine the future of a nation. It would be unthinkable if we were to have an outcome that had no majority and we just had to accept it. Having no majority and having no real chance of getting their deal through this Government might just be prepared to burn down the whole House with a no deal Brexit before it hands back the keys. We start the debate on this the week after next. We have to know exactly what is on offer when that debate commences.