Theresa May’s minority Conservative government survived its first challenge, winning the vote on the Queen’s Speech on Thursday by fourteen votes.
But even her firmest supporters could not claim her administration provides the ‘strong and stable government’ she promised at the election. The wheeler-dealing and compromising necessary to get through Thursday’s vote suggest a future of more of the same. Is this the best available government for Britain at the moment, or do we need a new Tory leader and another general election?
Once the Prime Minister had secured a deal with the ten MPs of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (and that took some time to achieve) it was never much in doubt that the government would win the backing of the House of Commons for the Queen’s Speech. But even at the last minute it was having to make concessions to backbench MPs in order to avoid the embarrassment of being defeated on amendments.
And the DUP deal itself hardly gives the government cast iron strength. It provides nothing like the security to run a five-year government that the Tories’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats gave David Cameron back in 2010. The DUP will support the government only on ‘confidence and supply’ measures, leaving it free to oppose the government on other matters when it chooses to do so, and the whole deal is going to be reviewed in two years’ time - assuming the government lasts that long.
What’s more, the terms of the deal, involving a £1 billion payment to Northern Ireland, have got up the noses of many, including Tory backbenchers. One of them, Heidi Allen, said: ‘I can barely contain my anger at the deal we have done with the DUP. I must put on record my distaste for the use of public funds to garner political control.’
Other Tories are alarmed at an alliance with a party they regard as illiberal and bigoted, especially when the Conservatives have been struggling to present themselves as a modern, liberal party. Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, takes issue with the DUP’s continuing refusal to countenance gay marriage in the province even when it has been legalised everywhere else in the United Kingdom. And others argue the deal threatens the Northern Irish peace process: the DUP and Sinn Fein had still not agreed how to restore the power-sharing executive at the time of the Queen’s Speech vote on Thursday.
Defenders of the DUP deal say that it is all constitutionally perfectly proper: if voters choose to elect a hung parliament, then it is the duty of MPs to do deals to make sure that Her Majesty’s government can continue, as continue it must. As for using public money to achieve this, that’s just a reflection of reality: MPs holding the balance of power are bound to use their new-found influence to extract benefits for their constituents. Politicians of all parties have always done this. And with regard to the peace process, they claim, the availability of more money going to Northern Ireland ought to act as an inducement to an agreement,.
The real problem inherent in the government’s current predicament is its instability. It is, and will remain, vulnerable to all sorts of pressure. That was made clear on Thursday when Stella Creasy, a backbench Labour MP, put down an amendment for which many Tory MPs expressed sympathy. It required the government to fund abortions provided in England to Northern Irish women who are legally unable to have abortions in the province. Facing defeat, the Treasury suddenly found the £1m necessary to fund it. The government tried to save face by praising Ms Creasy for having ‘brought to the House an injustice’, but its decision shows just how vulnerable it is to pressure.
And it is not as if there aren’t plenty of pressures about to bear down upon it. Earlier in the week the tenants of no 10 and no 11 Downing Street appeared at odds over whether the cap on public sector pay increases should be lifted. And of course the biggest pressures of all will come over Brexit. Many think the susceptibility of the government to pressure renders it unsustainable. Neil Coyle, a backbench Labour MP, said: ‘The fact that Labour backbenchers like Stella can wield great power in forcing changes like this throws into doubt how long Theresa May can drag this Commons arrangement out. Her fragile government cannot last.’
Those with the greatest influence on whether it should or not are Conservative MPs. What should they do? The most obvious solution, and the one that seemed imminently to be applied immediately after the election, is to replace their wounded leader (whom her former colleague, George Osborne, cheerfully described as a ‘dead woman walking’). But as the few weeks since the election have passed this has seemed less likely to happen in the near future. In the first place, Tory MPs do not see an obvious successor, or at least not one they could all agree on even in the dire straits they find themselves.
Furthermore, many of them recognise that electing a new leader would almost certainly require another general election to follow. A new prime minister, unelected by the public and in charge of a minority government, would lack legitimacy in many people’s eyes, so another election might have to be called. But those who recall the reaction of Brenda from Bristol believe there is little appetite in the country for yet another summons to the polling stations after elections in 2015 and 2017 and the referendum in 2016. And their most obvious fear is that another election would see Jeremy Corbyn enter Downing Street: he is reported to have told Michael Eavis, the organiser of Glastonbury, last weekend that he’d be prime minister within six months.
So Tory backbenchers are holding back and Mrs May seems more secure than she did two weeks ago. But there is a danger here too. Her government risks appearing simply to be stumbling on, getting weaker and weaker, especially as it confronts its greatest challenge: Brexit.
Remainers (or super-soft Brexiteers) on the Tory backbenches stayed loyal over the Queen’s Speech when they were lured with pro-Remain Labour amendments but they may well be less obedient to the whips when actual legislation on Brexit appears. Then they are likely to put (as they would see it) country before party.
But Labour has its own problems here too. Jeremy Corbyn sacked four of his frontbench team after they (and forty-five backbench Labour MPs) defied his call for them to abstain on an amendment tabled by the senior Labour backbencher, Chuka Umunna. They want Britain to remain in the single market after Brexit. In short, both frontbenches will have problems corralling their own MPs on the single biggest issue that will dominate this parliament however long it lasts.
So Britain finds itself with a weak and fragile government just as it enters a period of enormous uncertainty while it tries to negotiate the most difficult deal it has faced in living memory. Even so, is this the best available government to take responsibility? Or would it be better if the Conservatives found themselves a new leader and then called an election in the hope that voters would elect a government that really was ‘strong and stable’? As it happens, the Conservative Party has begun to advertise for new campaign managers. Could this be a straw in the wind?
What do you think would be the best way forward for the country?
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