Tories at risk of Government defeat as they prepare to protect slim majority

If Labour can inflict an early defeat on Cameron over unpopular legislation it will inspire their MPs to turn up and vote at every opportunity

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Indy Politics

A few weeks back, although it seems like an age ago now, a Conservative minister was speculating about possible permutations after the election.

Everyone assumed that the best the Conservatives could hope for was another Coalition – the prospect of an overall majority seemed fanciful.

The individual concerned admitted that it might be better than a small majority. Who, he asked, would want to go back to the days of John Major being held hostage by his backbenchers in the Commons; sapping his authority and fracturing the party?

But whether they like it or not that is the new reality and the number 12 (the Tory majority) is likely to become central to newspaper columns and TV reports in the months ahead – at least until natural political attrition denudes it further.

With potentially controversial legislation like the repeal of the Human Rights Act, the snooper’s charter and a fresh crackdown on so-called non-violent extremists in the offing, the potential for Government defeat is significant.

Such tight Parliamentary arithmetic was behind an early salvo from the new Conservative Chief Whip, Mark Harper, who told ministers they had to limit their travel plans for the foreseeable future to make sure they can be in Westminster to vote on key pieces of legislation.

 

The same message has gone out to Tory MPs. In the new Westminster world every vote counts – and they will be expected to be within five minutes of the division bell.

Part of this is understandable caution. Mr Harper has never been a whip before and was apparently only appointed after Michael Gove made clear to David Cameron that he was not prepared to carry on in the role. He is desperate to ensure he can deliver the votes and Tory sources say he is coming under pressure from Downing Street to run a tight ship.

Part of this is psychological. If Labour can inflict an early defeat on Cameron it will inspire their MPs to turn up and vote at every opportunity.

In contrast, if Mr Cameron can make his small majority work, it could make it harder for Labour whips (and to a lesser extent the SNP) to keep their troops in line.  Why, Labour backbenchers might ask, should we be  bothered to turn up just to reduce the Government’s majority?

Much will depend on what happens with the so-called “pairing system” – an informal arrangement where if a Government MP needs to be away from the House, he or she “pairs” with an opposition MP to even up the vote. In the 1970s, this sort of cross-party co-operation broke down entirely, leading to the spectacle of sick MPs being wheeled into the Commons for late night votes.

Labour has so far been coy about its approach to pairing. But it is a fine line to tread – the reality is that a breakdown of the system would inconvenience the opposition as much as the Government.

Finally there is a question of whether Mr Harper can control the Tory awkward squad. There is little love lost between the Prime Minister and a small (but significant) number of his backbenchers and when the euphoria of victory has died down they may make life very difficult for him.

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