Am a bit late to this – as a result of the day job – but then I’m always less excited about defeats caused by cock-up rather than conspiracy. And last night’s government defeat on a motion on the economy was a result of a good old-fashioned parliamentary ambush, rather than backbench dissent. Such defeats have always occurred: even in the 1950s and 1960s, when MPs never defeated their own governments deliberately, there was still the occasional defeat caused by incompetent whipping or an opposition ambush.
Something very similar happened during the early Blair years. In February 1999, during the passage of the Rating (Valuation) Bill, the Tory whips ordered their MPs to leave the Commons en masse. Labour MPs followed. Then, five minutes or so before the vote, more than 100 well-fed Tory MPs appeared on the horizon, ‘like something from the film Zulu’ (as one paper put it at the time). In the event the government then – with a paper majority of 179 – scraped through by a margin of 25, but only with the help of a few Liberal Democrats. A government with a majority of around half that is even more vulnerable to this sort of ambush.
Embarrassing it may be, and they’ll have been some red faces in the whips office this morning, but in the medium term it may not be such a bad thing for the government. Government MPs often complain about trooping through the lobbies in large numbers, and wonder why the whips can’t cut them more slack to have time away from the House. There have already been complaints from the government benches so far this Parliament along exactly those lines.
It’s easy to criticize whips for this, and suspect that they are just being bloody minded or thoughtless. But it’s their job to get the business through; they need to have enough MPs present to cope with the possibility of an Opposition ambush; and they also need to get MPs to realize that delivering the government’s legislation is part of their job. If you can’t secure discipline and attendance at the beginning of a Parliament, then what chance do you have when things get tough at the end, let alone during a second term?
No government would survive long without the effective management of its business and its parliamentarians – and last night was a good reminder of that fact.