Yeesterday we saw how a full whipped vote of the Commons is binding, requiring the government to accept its terms or engineer a reversal or amendment. Today I wish to look at the new question of “backbench” or “thursday” business.
I welcome David Cameron’s excellent decision to introduce a number of days in the Parliamentary year when backbench MPs can choose the business. Normally business is chosen by the government, or by the leadership of the opposition, to an agreed timetable. Backbench business days are as good for Parliamentary demcoracy as John Major’s great decision to launch powerful Select Committees to question and advise government departments on policy and administration.
Because in the early period of the new system backbenchers sometimes chose issues which did not suit the government, and arranged votes which could result in a government view or policy being overturned, the government is now seeking to establish the convention that backbench business can only result in a non binding vote. Again, this needs examination.
Two weeks ago I attended Parliament when we were debating the issue of the closure of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I had divided views on topic. I had sympathy with the local MPs who wished to defend their battalion. I also understood the need to allow senior officers and Ministers to streamline the forces sensibly, given the decision to cut the amount of money spent on the army. At the end of the exchanges there was a division. I asked the whips for advice on how I should vote. They said that they were instructing all government payroll members to abstain, so that was also their advice to me. I agreed to do so.
The vote resulted in a government defeat by 57 to 3. Those voting for the maintenance of the battalion were mainly local MPs concerned about it, and defence specialists who are unhappy about the army cuts. MPs came from both sides of the House to vote Yes to the motion. The government says this was a non binding vote.
I think they have a better case here than over the EU vote. The turnout was small. Many MPs accepted whips advice to abstain. If a significant group of MPs or the official opposition think the mood of the whole house might support overturning government policy on this issue, then they could insist on another vote in official opposition time or on some other occasion. If the Opposition picked it up as an issue, the government would then have to instruct its MPs to vote it down.
It would be better if the government simply voted down backbench motions they do not accept at the time. However, I can see the force of allowing low turnout votes. Then it is up to Parliament to insist on a proper vote where the government has to engage its forces, to test the true will of the House, if people think the minority raising the issue in debate in practice speak for the majority. All of these things are subject to argument and day by day tactics.
Parliament is likely to allow government non binding votes on backbench business, but they could be escalated to binding votes if Parliament wishes. If government were to lose a thursday vote by a large margin with more than half the House against, I think it then has to accept that was a binding vote after all. I do not think there is anything like a majority to save the 2nd Battalion, so the will of the House was not on this occasion thwarted.
Perhaps there should be a convention that where the government wants a thursday vote to be non binding, the Backbench Business Committee should table a motion starting with “This House advises the government to….”
Then the government could respond during the debate or shortly after to the advice either way. It would be entitled to reject it. It would also need , of course, to watch carefully the voting patterns. If too many MPs overall, or too many government MPs supported the advisory motion, there could also be a binding motion later.