by Jonathan Ashworth
Today, us MPs will be summoned to the other place to hear Her Majesty’s Gracious Address, the first Queen’s speech by a majority Conservative government for almost 19 years.
Later, in the Commons, jubilant Tory MPs will wave their order papers and cheer the returning triumphant prime minister Cameron to the rafters. His every (lame) gag will be met with guffaws as if he’s now the Tory answer to Peter Kay. Every snide put-down of an opponent will be met with much whooping and exaggerated slapping of thighs.
As the prime minister exits the chamber and heads for his customary glass of claret in the members’ dining room, ambitious Tory MPs will queue up to shake his hand. And let’s face it, given the scale of our defeat who can blame them?
But although our defeat in the country was resounding the parliamentary arithmetic that has consequently been thrown up offers even the most pessimistic Labour Uncut correspondent some hope.
Five years ago when Harriet Harman spoke for the opposition in the Queen’s speech debate she faced government benches with a working majority of 83. Today she will be opposite government benches with a working majority of just 16.
In the last Parliament, government MPs rebelled in 35 per cent of divisions. In those votes where the opposition defeated the government we won often because Tory MPs – many of whom have just been re-elected to the Commons – routinely voted against their own side.
Both the Tory whips office and Labour whips office will be well aware that only nine Tory MPs need to rebel for the Conservatives to lose when all opposition parties vote against them. Just nine, that’s all.
In the last Parliament four Tories voted against boundary change while another seven were absent while 51 MPs rebelled on the EU budget debate. On the PubCo vote, 17 Tories broke ranks to vote against their own government, while on their final defeat of the last Parliament, that shabby last-minute coup to oust Speaker Bercow, 16 Tories rebelled and voted with Labour and other Opposition MPs.
Tory whips will be hoping that their slender majority will instil some discipline. Far from it – already we’re seeing Tory MPs squabbling over the abolition of the Human Rights Act, over boundary reform and the EU referendum. David Cameron’s authority in the Commons will become more and more precarious with every reshuffle that passes over increasingly truculent backbenchers.
Over the following months the cunning and craftiness of the opposition whips office that has become the established hallmark of Labour chief whip Rosie Winterton, deputy chief whip Alan Campbell and third-in-command Mark Tami will again be the order of the day with key votes sprung at the most opportune moments.
Ahead of each and every one of these votes, Tory Whips will be instructed to tour the estate making sure every one of their side is present and able to vote. When the division bells ring every nook and cranny will need to be double checked. A couple of poor whips will no doubt be given ‘toilet duty’ to make sure none of their colleague have been caught short at the key moment. It will be hard, thankless, grinding work for these Tory whips for five long years.
On top of this there is also the outside chance that by-elections and possible defections could whittle down the majority further as happened to John Major final sad years in office.
To be sure of getting their programme through Tory ministers should now brace themselves for the chaos that is about to be unleashed as every piece of legislation has to be negotiated not just with their own insatiable backbenches but by various minor parties in the House as well.
It is entirely feasible that the Tories could win the support of the Liberal Democrats, Unionists, UKIP or, when they eventually grow tired of trying to stop Dennis Skinner sitting in his usual place, the SNP – but every vote bargained for comes at a cost.
David Cameron should enjoy his glass of claret today. But for the man who spent an election campaign shouting ‘chaos’ in every stump speech he gave, I suspect in this Parliament that’s exactly what he’s going to get.
Jonathan Ashworth MP is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister and a member of Labour’s NEC