by Jon Ashworth
If you want to find out what is going on in the Commons you ask a Labour whip, so said a Tory MP to the Labour whips’ office on the night of the equal marriage vote. While I can’t claim to know what is always going on I certainly know that the prime minister’s party management skills were again called into question this week.
This blog has already argued David Cameron’s modernisation of the Tory party is on its last legs. This week we had more evidence. On something that Cameron himself had decided was a touchstone issue, the majority of his MPs voted against him. In fact 136 voted no, 127 voted yes and 36 abstained. More starkly roughly 40 per cent of the “payroll” vote failed to back him – including nine out of fourteen in his own whips office – the very people who are supposed to enforce the will of the prime minister.
Of course the issue was a free vote but Cameron, Michael Gove, George Osborne and Theresa May were all out in force in recent days desperately trying to persuade their backbenchers to back the prime minister, and yet amazingly 70 per cent of Tory backbenchers ignored them and refused to vote the same way as the Prime Minister.
The free vote on Tuesday evening was on whether to give the bill its second reading and so the bill will now go off to committee to be scrutinised line by line before returning to the Commons and then the Lords. Immediately after these second reading votes the Commons also usually agrees a “programme motion” which timetables the bill though committee, a “money resolution” which agrees the relevant funds for the policy enacted in the bill and a “carry-over motion” to agree that the bill can be “carried over” to the next Parliamentary session should its passage not be completed in this session. The Commons often, though not always, agrees these motions without “dividing” i.e. voting on them.
But on Tuesday evening some Tory backbenchers were determined to cause as much trouble as possible for the Tory leadership and so forced votes on all of them.
And yet despite the scale of the vote against second reading, the Tory whips either were not motivated or caught unaware as to what would happen next. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
So if Labour was objecting the programme motion – as we did on Lords reform – we would shout “no” to cause a vote but Tuesday night the Labour party wasn’t objecting as we wanted the bill to go into committee on the suggested timetable.
The programme motion was put, Tory backbenchers shouted “no” causing a vote; then the “money resolution” they shouted “no” and caused a vote; and then on the “carry-over” motion, yep, they shouted “no” and caused a vote.
In other words three government rebellions from those Tory MPs most opposed to equal marriage even after having been granted a free vote on the substantive second reading vote. Of course the government won all these votes because Labour MPs were together in the “aye” lobby with those Tory MPs not rebelling.
As MPs trundle through the division lobbies our names are ticked off by clerks sat on a stool at a high desk called the “boxes.” Whips stand in front of these boxes letting colleagues know whether there is another vote straight away or whether we are done for the evening. Usually Tory whips do it in the boxes in the “aye” lobby and because we usually voting against the government, Labour whips do it in the “no” lobby.
Given these votes after the second reading on the programme motion, money resolution and carry-over motion were government business, albeit business supported by the opposition, it should have been Tory whips on these boxes or at the least one Tory whip and one Labour whip.
And yet no Tory whip was on those boxes advising their colleagues what was happening next. It was left to Labour whips to step up to the plate.
That meant on Tuesday evening we had the extraordinary sight of Labour whips explaining to Tory MPs, including the prime minister himself, that there were more votes expected coming up so hang around and don’t go anywhere! Of course this isn’t devastating in itself but it’s another small example of the shambolic nature of Cameron’s government.
So to any Tory MPs who might be reading this, including the Rt Hon member for Witney, if your whips are unable to tell you what’s going on, you are more than welcome to stop me for some friendly whipping advice.
Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip