Yesterday saw the Queen’s Speech delivered and the official State Opening of Parliament, with the Government announcing a range of new bills for the coming year. You can read my initial analysis of the Speech here, if you so desire.
It was a speech which many considered to be an attempt to secure a legacy of social reform for Prime Minister David Cameron following a period of threatened party rebellions. Instead, it could be simply an exercise in how best to deal with rebellion. Yes, the Conservative Government may be facing defeat on the Queen’s Speech due to a growing rebellion within the party. It has only been one day since it was delivered, and already the Speech is causing quite the headache for the Government.
The Government finds itself having to contend with open rebellion which could result in a government defeat on the Queen’s Speech. This comes as some 25 Eurosceptic Conservative MPs are openly backing an amendment to the Speech. This amendment is to express regret that the NHS is not specifically exempted from a trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP deal. Moreover, Mr Corbyn, the Labour Leader, has confirmed that Labour will be supporting this amendment. This means that if the Labour MPs join forces with rebel Tory backbenchers and other MPs join the fray – it had been rumoured that the SNP would support the amendment – the Government may see the first defeat of a Queen’s Speech in the Commons since 1924.
This planned rebellion marks the second time the Eurosceptics have worked in conjunction with Labour MPs in an attempt to force an historic defeat on a major Government event. The first instance was on the Tampon Tax after the March Budget, if you are interested.
Such rebellions, especially went undertaken along with Opposition MPs, are embarrassing and may prove damaging to the Government. It is bad enough when you face threats of blocking bills etc. from the Opposition, but some crumbs of comfort are taken in the fact that this is essentially the Opposition’s job: block and/or hold up anything which they disagree with, either on the basis of the public interest or general political ideology. When your own backbench MPs threaten rebellion, it is a tad too close to home and simply serves to weaken the Government’s position, as well as that of the party. This rings especially true if you are a Government possessing a slim majority in the Commons: every vote counts, and the loss of several backbench votes could prove costly.
What tends to happen is that in the event of a possible rebellion, the Government seeks to determine what the issue is which acted as the catalyst. In this case, it appears the Eurosceptism of the MPs in question is the source. Remember how I said yesterday that everything is now viewed through the lens of the upcoming EU referendum? I feel this applies here. These Conservative MPs had originally been hesitant to provoke a rebellion, but have changed their minds now due to what they perceive as the Government’s ‘project fear’ in the referendum campaign. Moreover, they were further influenced in their decision in light of allegations of a Number 10 briefing campaign against Justice Secretary Michael Gove in particular. (It should be noted that The Times’ article today seemingly suggests Mr Gove is not altogether innocent.)
What further adds weight to the rebellion, and potential damage to the Government, is that the Government will struggle to contain and overcome this particular amendment regarding the NHS and TTIP.
You see, the line has consistently been that the NHS is explicitly exempt from TTIP. Indeed, Government Ministers and their spokespeople have a tendency to reference a 2015 letter from EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström to Lord Livingston about TTIP in which she writes that ‘there is no reason to fear either for the NHS as it stands today or for changes to the NHS in future, as a result of TTIP or indeed EU trade policy more broadly’. The Eurosceptic MPs know of the traditional line, and know that for the Government to concede in some way on the issue will only serve to undermine this message. Evidently they will use this to pile pressure on the Government following a lack of mention of this oft-promised exemption yesterday.
The Prime Minister has now sought to seek détente. In an attempt to avoid a Commons defeat, Downing Street has agreed to sign up to a cross-party move to exclude the NHS from the terms of a controversial EU-US trade deal. Essentially, the Government will agree to the amendment should it be produced. As a Number 10 spokesman said:
“As we’ve said all along, there is no threat to the NHS from TTIP. So if this amendment is selected, we’ll accept it.”
Now, this is rather clever, as it shows the Government is aware it is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. It cannot avoid discussing the issue, and it was aware of its vulnerability to a potential attack on the traditional and oft-used line regarding the NHS and TTIP as previously outlined. Hence the ‘as we’ve said all along’ comment – Number 10 is trying to see off a rebellion about the omission of the exemption by reiterating its continued support for the exemption as a defence. By issuing this statement of support for the amendment, the Government reiterates its position, and may just avoid rebellion at the same time.
The plot lead by the 25 Conservative Eurosceptics may have resulted in only a symbolic vote, but symbolism is important (as a Northern Irish politico such as myself can confirm.) The Government would not want to enter the new Parliamentary session with a defeat, the first defeat on a Queen’s Speech since 1924. Perhaps more importantly in the current environment, it would not have wished to enter the final countdown towards the EU referendum off the back of such a historic and symbolic defeat, knowing that Eurosceptics from its own party were the instigators. It is telling that immediately after the statement was issued, the Vote Leave campaign branded the move as a humiliating climb down.
The civil war in the Conservative party over the European Union and the June referendum strikes again, and shows that normal politics is suspended until the referendum has concluded. It also raises again the question of how exactly the Conservatives plan to unify post-Referendum. Actions like this planned rebellion is evidence of the very obvious and quite bitter division within the party, and such division is not easily mended. The Queen’s Speech was supposed to burnish the ‘One Nation’ credentials of the Conservative Government, and secure the Prime Minister’s legacy. It might just have served instead to highlight the historic division within the party over Europe. The real battle ahead for Mr Cameron is not winning the EU referendum: it is winning back his party.