The Benn Bill and the Government: The Most Disastrous Day- 5th September 2019
Good morning, one and all, yesterday was another massive day in Parliament, and as promised here is my update now all is said and done.
The first important business in the house was Boris Johnson’s first Prime Minister’s Questions, always an important occasion for any Prime Minister looking to establish their skills and authority in the House. By any measure, for Johnson it was an utter disaster. For what I think is the first time, Corbyn genuinely impressed me. His six questions were essentially divided into two sets of repeated questions, firstly pushing Johnson to explain what progress has been made in negotiations with the EU, and then pressing him to answer the question when he did not answer. He then pushed him on releasing details of Operation Yellowhammer and the results of No Deal. Again, Johnson cardinally failed to answer those questions, instead levying his own questions, rambling incoherently and making joke lines that never quite landed. It did highlight quite how much of a poor performer in Parliament he is. He came across as childish, petulant and evasive, none of which are good qualities in Parliament. One of the Labour MPs, Tam Singh Dhesi gained much applause for accusing Johnson of racism, per his former comments in various of his columns and written works. It was certainly a powerful intervention, only slightly undermined by a similar lack of vocalism on Labour’s antisemitism problems.
Following PMQs, Sajid Javid made his Autumn spending review statement. I will not dwell on this as it was similar levels of disastrous, and the line that “austerity was over” which should have been the key media takeaway was lost in the general blandness and lack of content of the rest of the statement. All in all, up to this point you may be thinking that the day was a catastrophe for the government. Well, to quote from a 70s band: “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”…
As I mentioned on Tuesday, yesterday the House of Commons took control of Parliamentary business in order to pass Hilary Benn’s bill designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit (more technically the “European Union (Withdrawal) (№6) Bill). The debate was fierce and included some of the finest speeches that I think I’ve ever seen in the House. As promised, the 21 Tory rebels who had voted for the business motion on Tuesday had the Tory whip withdrawn and now sit as independents in the House. As dictated by the business motion passed on Tuesday, all three “readings” were to be held on Wednesday (if you want an explanation of the parliamentary procedure that leads to a bill being passed, let me know). The Bill was passed in all three readings by votes of 329–320 and 327–299 respectively. There was a curious moment whilst they were voting on amendments when one from Stephen Kinnock MP seemingly passed by accident. Kinnock’s amendment basically states that MPs will get another chance to debate and potentially vote on Theresa May’s deal, with the amendments that were agreed upon in the cross party talks. The reason it supposedly passed by accident was because the Government did not put up any “tellers” (the people who count votes in the lobbies), which means that an amendment is deemed to pass by default. Originally this as thought to be an accident however it has been pointed out, and in light of the way the Government is behaving, I’m inclined to agree with this, that thi may have been a deliberate attempt to scupper the Bill in the hope that including this amendment would reduce the amount of votes it got at the final reading. If this was the case, it failed spectacularly. The Bill passed its third reading at around 19.50 by the above majority. After this it was sent straight to the House of Lords, but more on that later.
The Commons then moved on to debate the Prime Minister’s motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act for an early general election on 15th October. Johnson made this motion with the assertion that the passage of the Benn Bill (now seen as inevitable by the government) essentially made it impossible for the Government to get a deal, as leaving with no deal was no longer on the table. Usually, especially with a PM whose majority is -43, you would expect the opposition leaders to be champing at the bit for an election, and they were very clear that in fact they are. However, they also expressed their concern, one shared by many commentators (including myself) that the Government has chosen this date in order to run down the clock, to essentially guarantee leaving with no deal. When put to a vote, the motion was voted for by 298–56. Although usually this would mean that it has passed, the rules of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act require that such a motion not only succeeds, but succeeds by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (not just of the MPs present). As this threshold was not reached, the motion failed and we will not be having an election on 15th October. My reading of this is that the opposition parties decided that voting against would indicate a lack of desire for an election, which they do not have, but abstaining would indicate that although they do want an election, they are refusing to let the PM dictate its terms. With that Johnson accused opposition leaders of cowardice, and the matter was closed.
Back to the Benn bill. After passage by the commons, it was sent to the House of Lords. Now this was in many ways the more dangerous place for it to be. Although the Lords has a large majority in favour not only of anti-no dealers, but also of remainers, because of various procedural differences between the two Houses it is easier to hold up legislation in the Lords and the Government had called in Brexiteering peers to filibuster the legislation in the vain hope that they could ensure it wouldn’t have enough time to pass. The manner in which they did this was to add 86 amendments to the business motion to allow the Lords to debate the bill swiftly. This would essentially mean up to 172 separate votes, just to allow the Lords to debate the Bill, even before they had started doing so. Many peers had turned up with overnight gear, duvets and toothbrushes to ensure that they could keep voting through the night. Fortunately, in the end this was not required as at around 1.30 in the morning the Government accepted defeat and allowed the vote to go ahead. The Lords will be debating the bill tomorrow, and we should have a final decision on Friday night. It is possible that they may send it back to the Commons for minor amendments, which would take place on Monday.
Boris Johnson spent yesterday crowing, catcalling and jeering at the opposition. But make no mistake, it is hard to imagine a more monumentally catastrophic start to a premiership. All his and Dominic Cummings plans to force us out on a no-deal basis are in tatters. The momentum is with the rebels. Johnson has become the first Prime Minister since Lord Roseberry in 1894 to lose the first parliamentary vote of his premiership, and quite possibly the first PM ever to have lost the first four and therefore secured himself so far a 100% failure record in the House. His majority has plummeted from +1 to -43. He is trapped in a corner of his own making, and he is set for an imminent election that he may well not win. To compound this, this morning, barely half an hour ago from the time of writing, his brother Jo Johnson, resigned as both a minister and an MP to spend less time with his family, because of tensions between family loyalty and national interests. The Government is dead in the water, and has divested itself of many of its finest minds in the form of the rebels away from whom it has stripped the Tory whip, and there are already signs of disquiet on the backbenches. It is a headache of their own making, one that no amount of paracetamol can fix.
5th September 2019