IF Parliament is sovereign – and Brexit is about ‘taking back control’ of the nation’s affairs – why is this Government appearing to ride roughshod over the votes of democratically-elected MPs by saying they’re ‘not binding’?
Talk about arrogance. I refer, of course, to the Tory party’s decision not to contest last week’s vote on Universal Credit – and Labour’s call for a ‘pause’ until the practicalities are sorted out – because Theresa May could not muster sufficient support, not least, I kid you not, because Scottish MP Douglas Ross was ‘freelancing’ as a linesman at Barcelona’s Champions League match.
Like Opposition Day motions last month on NHS pay, and student tuition fees, that the Government ignored before announcing subtle changes in policy, the public regard the arrogance of Ministers – and their Commons business managers – as breathtaking in the extreme.
Not only is the Government in contempt of Parliament, but it is betraying those ‘just about managing’ families that Mrs May promised to champion, as well as those MPs trying to speak up for constituents, some of whom have been left penniless and at the mercy of food banks.
How will it end? The Government’s Brexit deal being voted down on the floor of the House of Commons and Ministers saying that the outcome does not matter because of some obscure Parliamentary rule from a bygone age?
On this evidence, don’t rule it out after Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said rather ominously: “The Government, like different parties and different Members, will look on a case-by-case basis at whether they will vote on specific motions or not.”
This state of flux has come about because Mrs May lost her overall majority on June 8 and the support of the Democratic Unionist Party – at a cost of £1bn – does not cover day-to-day policy differences.
Though the Tories won far more votes than David Cameron did in 2015, their distribution, perversely, did not yield the overall majority that the party anticipated. And, because of this, the Government needs to recognise the political dynamics are very different in a hung parliament.
Take universal credit – and the aim of helping the out-of-work to find employment. The principle is not in question; the issue is the practical implementation and how claimants, people with no savings, are having to wait six weeks for their first payment and were at the mercy of premium-rate phone lines until Ministers were forced to intervene.
If the Government had recognised these concerns at the outset, it might not have faced last week’s humiliation when MPs voted by 299 votes to nil to pause the rollout after lemming-like Tories abstained en masse on the orders of their whips, including Skipton’s Julian Smith.
This was summed up by the independent-minded Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who accused Ministers of being “grotesquely ignorant” for believing – erroneously – that the poor have “a nest egg which will tide them over as they wait a minimum of 42 days for payouts”.
In many respects, this is an issue of competence – or incompetence – and it cannot be right that the Government can glibly ignore such votes because it was only an Opposition day motion. If it was Labour in office, the Tories would be crying foul. I don’t blame Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for exploiting such situations or Debbie Abrahams, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, for securing an emergency debate on Tuesday – any Opposition would have been failing in its duty had it not done so.
What is even more shameful was the absence of Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke to defend his department’s record. Present at Cabinet in the morning, he passed the buck and left it to a junior minion to take the flak on his behalf.
Yet this sorry episode masks a wider malaise; namely the inability of successive governments to heed the wisdom of those Parliamentarians who want to change policy for the better and have a bit more experience, knowhow and nouse than many ministers.
I, for one, remain in awe of the select committees, and their ability to hold Ministers, civil servants and other senior officials to account. Their reports are invariably exercises in the bleeding obvious. If Ministers had heeded the Work and Pensions Select Committee on Universal Credit, the Government might not find itself so bereft of credibility.
Yet Parliament’s liaison committee, which enables the chair of each select committee to question the Prime Minister twice a year, has still not been constituted, in another breach of protocol. What is the Government afraid of?
This matters. With Brexit, it’s more important than ever that the Government gets policy right in the first place. Theresa May intimated that she intended to be more humble, and inclusive, than her predecessors. Now she’s in danger of being in office but not in power, former chancellor Norman Lamont’s devastating indictment of John Major nearly a quarter a century ago.
If she wants to survive, she should accept Parliament’s sovereignty – and that it is the fundamental duty of each and every MP to speak up for the voiceless, the ‘just about managing’, who she once promised to put first. Like Mrs May, they, too, don’t have time on their side.