How did the Prime Minister win a vote in Parliament and lose her authority?

It is remarkable that after a series of U-turns on key policy announcements and the resignation of two senior members of her Cabinet, the event which may well have precipitated the Prime Minister’s resignation was a parliamentary vote on an opposition motion which the Government actually won.

To be sure, many would argue that the Prime Minister’s position was already untenable before Wednesday evening but any hopes of retaining office went downhill quickly following the chaotic mismanagement of a vote on a Labour motion on fracking. While the Labour Party may take some pleasure in contributing to PM’s downfall, much of the damage was self-inflicted.

What is an opposition day debate?

Wednesday was one of twenty afternoons set aside in each parliamentary session to debate issues raised by opposition parties. Although so-called opposition days allow the opposition to set the agenda, they rarely cause serious difficulties for a government which can command a majority in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition motion. Moreover, even if the government loses a vote on an opposition day motion, in most cases these are not considered to be binding and the government is not obliged to make any changes in response. Consequently, government’s may even choose to ignore an opposition motion entirely and not bother voting at all. Opposition days do provide an important opportunity for opposition parties to raise issues of concern and possibly to embarrass the government by forcing its MPs to vote against something which may be popular, such as extending free school meals, but can’t generally be used to force the government to take action.

Labour’s motion on fracking was slightly different in that it included a clause which would set aside the standing orders of the House of Commons, which state that the government has control over parliamentary business. The motion then allowed for the opposition to take control of the parliamentary order paper at a later date (29th November) in order to bring forward a bill which would ban the use of fracking in the UK. This was an unusual tactic but reflects a similar episode during the Brexit debates in 2019, when a group of MPs took control of the parliamentary agenda in order to bring forward a bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

This was an interesting tactic by Labour, facilitating a parliamentary vote on the standing orders which can be changed by a vote in the House, rather than seeking to press the government to take action without any real power to compel it to do so. As a result, the opposition sought to turn a non-binding opposition motion into a resolution with real effects. This meant the government could not afford simply to ignore the opposition motion and cede control of the legislative agenda to Labour.

Moreover, Labour’s decision to focus on fracking was also key. The Prime Minister had proposed lifting the ban on fracking, but this is an issue on which Conservative MPs are divided. Not only was a moratorium on fracking included in the party’s 2019 manifesto, but several Conservative MPs  represent constituencies where plans for fracking have been subject to considerable local opposition. In short Labour sought to force Conservative MPs to vote against a key manifesto pledge and in favour of something which many of them oppose. By combining this with an attempt to take control of the parliamentary agenda, Labour effectively forced the government into a position in which it felt the need to whip its MPs to vote against the motion.

Three-line whips and confidence motions

While Labour might be seen to have laid a trap for the government, the chaos which followed was largely self-inflicted. The Conservative response was to issue a three-line whip, effectively compelling Conservative MPs to vote against the opposition motion or be subject to disciplinary action. Given the size of the government’s majority this should have been enough to defeat the motion. It is possible that several Conservative MPs would have abstained, some may even have decided to vote for the Labour motion, although this seems unlikely. Although this is a serious disciplinary matter, as several commentators have since observed, the penalty for abstaining on a three-line whip is unlikely to have extended to having the whip withdrawn and, if the MPs in question had particular constituency concerns, the government would usually have been sympathetic to their predicament.

However, at some point on Wednesday, the Government decided to make this a confidence motion, implying that if the government was defeated it would be forced to resign and call a general election. Although set piece votes, such as those on the Queen’s speech or the budget are generally considered to be confidence issues which the government must win, the government can declare any vote a matter of confidence. It was, however, a considerable escalation of the stakes to make a vote on an opposition motion on such a divisive issue a confidence vote.

Ironically opposition days can be used to table motions of no confidence in the government and unlike most opposition day motions these are considered binding. Given the difficulties facing the Truss government Labour may well have considered this, but perhaps dismissed the idea on the grounds that a confidence motion was more likely to unite Conservative MPs around their leader. By choosing to turn a vote on which its MPs are divided into a confidence vote, the Conservative leadership, however, managed to create a level of disruption which the Labour opposition could not hope to have achieved simply by tabling a confidence motion. MPs who might reasonably be allowed to quietly abstain on an issue which was particularly sensitive in their constituencies, were now being asked to put their own re-election chances on the line to prop up the Prime Minister.

It is not clear why the government chose to do this. One must assume that Conservative whips felt that a three-line whip was not enough to ensure victory and there was a real danger that Labour would win the vote. It is also worth considering the wider implications of a Labour victory. If Labour had been successful in seizing the agenda and bringing forward its own legislation on this issue, it might well have repeated the trick on subsequent opposition days, significantly disrupting the government’s own legislative agenda.

It’s hard to know what intelligence Conservative whips had about the scale of the potential backbench rebellion on the Labour motion but there is very little evidence that a sizeable and damaging rebellion was impending. On Wednesday afternoon less than a handful of Conservative MPs publicly stated that they could not vote with the government on this motion, and most of the dismay on Conservative benches revolved around the fact that the government had chosen to make this a confidence issue.

Confusion in the chamber and in scuffles in the lobby

The government’s problems were compounded by the handling of the issue as the day progressed. Having decided to make this already divisive issue the one on which the Truss government would survive or fall, someone in number 10 got cold feet and decided not to risk it. The minister closing the debate at the despatch box, Graham Stuart, dismayed the House by stating that ‘quite clearly, this is not a confidence vote’, repeating ‘obviously this is not a confidence vote’. Stuart was asked to clarify this by the Conservative MP, Ruth Edwards, who stated ‘many of us have been told today by our Whips that if we vote for, or abstain from voting against, this motion, we will lose the Whip.’ His response, ‘that is a matter for party managers, and I am not a party manager’ was hardly a lesson in clarity.

The effect of this was twofold. There was clearly some confusion as to whether this was a confidence issue. Stuart’s initial statement that it was not a confidence issue was arguably clear, but his follow up did little to settle the matter, particularly for MPs who had been told all day by the whips, presumably in the most robust terms, that they must vote with the government to prevent a general election. Secondly, it is apparent that this last-minute change had not been communicated to the whips, effectively undermining their authority. As Conservative MPs made their way into the division lobbies there were reports that the chief whip and the deputy chief whip had both resigned, and for several hours afterwards the government was unable to confirm if either were still in place.

There were also reports of an unseemly row between Conservative MPs in the division lobby. A groups of Conservative MPs, including cabinet members, were accused of physically manhandling at least one reluctant Conservative MP into the lobby in support of the government, prompting the speaker to launch an investigation into bullying.

To compound the confusion, in the commotion in the division lobbies it is apparent that several MPs failed to record their vote using the electronic card readers when entering the lobbies. For a time it appeared that the Conservative rebellion was even greater than it eventually proved to be, and perhaps most remarkably, that the Prime Minister had not voted.

In the end the Conservatives won the vote with some ease. The Labour motion was defeated, it was later announced that the whips had not resigned, and the record was corrected to show that the Prime Minister had voted with most of the rest of her party. Thirty-two Conservative MPs abstained, although some of these will have had permission to miss the vote and will presumably have been paired with an opposition MP who was also missing.  In a bizarre coda at 1.30 in the morning Downing Street issued a statement that although the vote had not been a confidence issue, it had still been a three-line whip and those who did not have a reasonable excuse for their absence would face ‘proportionate disciplinary action.’ It is not clear if this process had begun by the time the Prime Minister resigned twelve hours later.

With its fracking motion Labour presented the government with a knotty problem, which certainly required careful handling. Instead, the government contrived to alienate its own embattled backbenchers by selecting the nuclear option and making it a confidence vote. It then further alienated them by changing its position only minutes before the vote took place. The melee in the division lobby only added to the sense of confusion and lack of control at the heart of government. That the government won the vote is largely irrelevant, as in the process it lost what remaining credibility it had amongst its own MPs. The episode is a remarkable example of the importance of party management in the House of Commons and that opposition parties do not necessarily need to win a parliamentary vote in order to undermine the government.

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A hard act to follow: Charles III and the future of the monarchy

One of the prevailing themes in commentary following the death of Queen Elizabeth II was the continuity and constancy which her long reign embodied. This also reflected the long and almost unbroken continuity of the institution of the monarchy in Britain. The passing of a sovereign, however, naturally raises questions about the future of the institution of the monarchy. This post reflects on the challenges facing King Charles, and his successors, as they follow Britain’s longest reigning and arguably most popular monarch.

King Charles is 73 years old. He is ascending the throne at an age when most people have already retired. In contrast his workload is likely to increase considerably. The Queen was reputed to have worked with diligence and energy throughout her reign and she has perhaps, in this area as in many others, set a high bar for her son to reach. Although the Queen had stepped back from many of her public duties in recent years she continued to work until the end. In her final days she carried out one of her most important constitutional duties, meeting with the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and asking Liz Truss to form a government.

Yet even before Covid, the Queen had begun to reduce her public engagements, allowing the Prince of Wales to take on some of her more arduous duties such as the wreath laying at the Cenotaph and overseas visits such as attendance at the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. As King, Charles may also want to share the load with his son, the new Prince of Wales. Unlike the Queen he also has several siblings who he may be able to rely on to support him in his role. Although Prince Andrew seems likely to remain out of the public eye, Princess Anne and the Earl and Countess of Wessex already carry out a significant number of public duties and can, perhaps, be relied upon to step in if age and infirmity begin to challenge the King.

Charles will also need to behave differently as king. As Prince of Wales, he had relative freedom to speak out about the issues he was passionate about. As the monarch he may need to be more circumspect in his public statements, something which he acknowledged in his address to the nation on the evening after his mother’s death:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.

Yet we should not, perhaps, expect the new king to behave quite like his mother. One of the consequences of coming to the throne late in life is that the King’s views on a range of issues are already fully formed and moreover, well known. At his stage in life, he may struggle to hide his concerns or displeasure, and we may well see a closer parallel with his outspoken father than with the cautious ingénue who ascended the throne in 1952.

The King may also be treated differently by those around him. He may not, for example, enjoy the same deference from the political class that his mother so clearly did. Reflecting on their weekly audiences with the Queen, Prime Ministers, particularly in recent years, frequently acknowledged the Queen’s wisdom drawn from long experience. Fifteen Prime Minsters served under the Queen; Charles is on his first, although he may not need to wait long for the second. To be sure there is a deference which is attached to the role rather than the individual, but it would be surprising if his advice was imbued with the same level of wisdom as that enjoyed by his mother. The first indication of a more cautious relationship between the government and the monarch may well be the Truss government’s decision not to allow the King to attend the Cop 27 summit, despite, or more likely because of, his well-known views on the environment.

King Charles also does not enjoy anywhere near the level of personal popularity of his mother. The extraordinary demonstrations of public grief which followed the Queen’s death were merely a reflection of the level of public support for the Queen in life. Polling by YouGov indicated that irrespective of people’s views on the monarchy, around three quarters of the public consistently agreed that the Queen did a good job during her time on the throne, while the proportion who felt she did a bad job was in single figures. Approval ratings for Charles, as Prince of Wales, were considerably lower. As recently as May 2022, only 32% of those polled by YouGov thought Charles would make a good king, while exactly the same proportion thought he would not. As a new King, Charles has enjoyed something of a poll bounce. In polling undertaken just days after the Queen’s death, YouGov reported that 63% now thought he would make a good king, while 53% thought that Camilla would do well in her new role as Queen Consort.

Public opinion may of course change. It is clear that the overwhelmingly personal popularity of the Queen, enhanced the popularity of the institution of the monarchy. In the case of Charles, the opposite appears to be true. His personal popularity appears to have been enhanced by becoming the monarch. He is also benefitting from the legacy of popularity for the institution bequeathed by his mother.

The death of a monarch does, however, naturally lead to questions about the future of monarchy. Britain will remain a monarchy for as long as the British public are happy to support it. Polling indicates that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the British public consistently think that Britain should remain a monarchy. At the same time around one in five consistently support the replacement of the monarch with an elected head of state. There are, however, some significant demographic differences in support for the monarchy, with young people in particular, considerably less supportive than older groups. In polling by YouGov shortly after the death of the Queen, while 75% of those aged 50-64, and 86% of over 65s, thought that Britain should remain a monarchy, only 47% of those aged 18-24 wanted to keep the monarchy, while a third of young people thought Britain should have an elected head of state. Similarly, only 31% of 18–24 year olds said the monarchy made them feel proud, compared to 73% of over 65s.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that there is some scepticism when people are asked if they think Britain will still be a monarchy a hundred years from now. There has been a steep decline in those who thought that Britain would still be a monarchy in a hundred years, from 66% a decade ago down to 39% earlier this year, when the majority (41%) thought it would no longer be a monarchy. Although as with other questions about the monarchy, there has been an increase in support in polling following the Queen’s death, with 52% now agreeing that Britain would still be a monarchy in hundred years, compared to 30% who think it would not.

Following the death of the Queen support for the monarchy remains high, and on assuming the role, the new King has also enjoyed an increase in personal support. But the future of the monarchy is not guaranteed. The Queen is a hard act to follow, and it may be some considerable time before Britain has another monarch who enjoys the long reign and personal popularity of Elizabeth II. One simple explanation for the Queen’s popularity is that she ascended the throne at a young age and remained on it for such a long time. Few people in Britain can remember a time when she was not Queen. In contrast throughout the reign of Charles III, most people will remember, in many cases with great affection, the reign of his predecessor. In coming to the throne late in life Charles cannot hope to emulate the constancy embodied in his mother’s long reign. Moreover, in this he is not alone. If Charles lives as long as his mother, Prince William will be 63 when he becomes king, and if he enjoys a similarly long life, Prince George will be 65 when he ascends the throne. Britain is at the end of an extraordinarily long reign, but the sad truth is that the UK is probably going have to get used to a succession of relatively short reigns by elderly men. The overwhelming support for the institution of the monarchy is perhaps Elizabeth II’s most significant legacy, but her heirs and successors can’t assume the same level of support, from politicians or the public, and will need to work hard to preserve that legacy.

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Choosing a politics textbook… again

Choosing a textbook for your first-year politics course can be a daunting prospect, as much for those delivering the course as for students embarking on a degree in politics. As I write this a pile of no less than ten different politics textbooks totters on the edge of my desk, many of them in multiple editions. Most are designed as broad introductions to British government and politics and cover broadly the same ground. Alongside them sits an, albeit smaller, pile of politics dictionaries, and a diverse assortment of general introductions to recent developments. Selecting a single volume from this ever-growing pile is no easy task.

Keeping up with events

One simple and effective criteria is to select the most recently published textbook on the basis that if a week is a long time in politics then the years between editions of most standard textbooks amount to a political epoch. The pace of political change in the UK over the last few years means that most politics textbooks are out of date long before they hit the bookshops. Publishers generally attempt to keep up with the electoral cycle so that new editions of established titles appear after each general election. But with three general elections in five years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events has posed a particular challenge to publishers and those responsible for writing textbooks.

This year’s students have the benefit of a new edition of the of the popular Politics UK textbook by Bill Jones, Philip Norton and Isabelle Hertner, the 10th edition of which was published in the summer of 2021. Although this is a long-established franchise the latest edition has been substantially revised to reflect recent developments and is almost 100 pages longer than the previous edition. The 9th edition was substantially updated to encompass Brexit and also the impact of the Trump Presidency on the UK. The 10th edition benefits from new chapters on ‘Elites in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Gender and British Politics’ and on ‘UK immigration policy in a hostile environment’. These are very welcome additions and reflect a broader focus on British society and to some extent the inequalities which underpin it, rather than simply focusing on the political process.

Another valuable feature of recent editions of Politics UK is the inclusion of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ These provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 10th edition includes interesting pieces by Julie Smith on Parliament in light of Brexit, John Curtice on Conservative voters, and Philip Collins on the decline of civic discourse.  The only problem with these short commentaries is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published. While students embarking on a degree in 2021 will be well served  by the 10th edition of Politics UK, they would also be well-advised to seek out earlier editions in order to read the short end-pieces such as those by Simon Jenkins on the future of the UK and Bill Jones on fake news from the 9th edition, Mark Garnett on the 2011 riots, Peter Riddell on the decline of the mainstream media and Michael Moran on whether it is possible to buck the markets from the 8th edition, Andrew Gamble on the legacy of empire and Chris Mullin on the parliamentary expenses scandal from the 7th edition and Hugo Young’s excellent essay in the 6th edition.

It is also worth noting that even the most recent editions of textbooks rarely offer an entirely new perspective on events. One of the reasons that textbooks can go through many editions in a relatively short space of time is that recent developments are generally absorbed into an existing, usually successful, framework. It is the nature of textbooks that they rarely present cutting edge, original research but provide a distillation of current received wisdom on particular issues, and at their best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, aside from three new chapters, the chapter headings and indeed the content is broadly the same as in previous editions.

Partly as a result of this, another criticism of many politics textbooks is that they often focus too much on explaining the relatively unchanging systems of government but provide less effective commentary on the more dynamic politics which takes place within them. While most will provide an introduction to the principal actors and institutions of the British political system they can, at times, read like guidebooks or manuals, which explain how the system works but not why it operates in a particular way. Rather like a Haynes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates without considering the impact of whoever is driving it. This is a point well made in this review from The Times Higher in which Eric Shaw observes that some politics textbooks, including an earlier edition of Politics UK, can:

…leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally [they] exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

In many of these books the answer to the question ‘who runs Britain?’ often begins something like ‘Britain is a parliamentary democracy….’ which perhaps somewhat misses the point. In response to this, in previous years I have recommended Dearlove and Saunders excellent Introduction to British Politics, which covers much the same ground as many of the other textbooks but in many areas offers a more thoughtful and critical edge. Sadly, the most recent edition was published in 2000 and is unlikely to meet the needs of students starting their degree today, while the previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree.

Joint or single-authored?

Another worthwhile consideration is whether textbooks are single-authored or include chapters by a range of different authors. It is the nature of academic research that most scholars tend to develop depth of knowledge over breadth. The advantage of books with multiple authors is that individual chapters are usually contributed by experts on each subject. Single-authored books in contrast reflect the expertise, but also the limitations, of a single author’s knowledge. Writing a textbook which encompasses in some depth every aspect of British government and politics is a tall order, even for the most accomplished scholar, as this article in The Time Higher observed.  Nevertheless, some have managed this with some success.

Moreover, while nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can make them more readable than those written by multiple authors. In this regard I have in the past recommended Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK. A notable addition to the field in this regard is Andrew Blick’s UK Politics published by Oxford University Press this summer. Blick is a well-respected expert on the UK constitution, amongst other things. His book is particularly good on the location of power in the British political system and the intersection between Government, Parliament and the civil service. In keeping with other recent textbooks on UK politics it also includes interesting material on British society with a valuable chapter on identity, equality and power, as well as a useful chapter on communications and public opinion.

A slightly different kind of politics textbook is represented by the multi-authored or edited collections which don’t seek to explain how the political system works but instead provide informed commentary on the most recent developments. These books won’t help one to understand, for example, how parliament works or the relative merits of different electoral systems, but they will help to explain what impact recent governments have had on political institutions and processes. By seeking to be current, these books have a built-in obsolescence but they are vital and thought-provoking and should be read alongside the standard textbooks. The most prominent example of this genre is the Developments in British Politics series which is currently in its 10th edition, imaginatively entitled Developments in British Politics 10.

Study guides

Recent years have seen a growth in the publication of study guides. Some of these such as the Palgrave Study Skills series are designed for students across disciplines. Of these, Stella Cottrell’s  Study Skills Handbook is still the best, but there are now a bewildering array of other guides in the series covering subjects such as essay writing, undergraduate research and critical thinking.

Discipline specific study guides are less common. The 2nd edition of Robert Leach and Simon Lightfoot’s excellent Politics and IR Companion, was published in 2018, and is probably the most useful volume to sit alongside Politics UK on the politics student’s bookshelf. This invaluable reference work combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more substantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and a truly excellent section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam. The inclusion of a chapter on employability encompassing advice on applying for jobs and internships is a significant addition to this edition.

Another recent example of a student focused guide is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, the sadly departed head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. This short guide not only provides an introduction to the subject but also invaluable commentary on what one is likely to encounter when studying for a degree in the politics, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

In defence of a dictionary

Finally, a word about dictionaries. It may seem somewhat obstinate in the days of the internet and Wikipedia to recommend that students buy something as antiquated as a dictionary but a good dictionary of politics will be an invaluable addition to the politics student’s bookshelf. It is important to remember that studying politics at degree level is a specialist pursuit in the same way as engineering or medicine. One would not expect a medical student to Google a patient’s symptoms, and similarly a politics student confused about the single transferable vote or the nature of multiculturalism would do well to reach for a good dictionary of politics rather than their mobile phone. The latest of edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics was published in 2018 and, in a welcome development, has been expanded to encompass international relations. There are other dictionaries on the market. Bill Jones’s, Dictionary of British Politics  is dated but still useful and distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit, while the Routledge Dictionary of Politics contains fewer but often more substantive definitions and is particularly strong on concepts and ideologies. While politics dictionaries are periodically updated, having the most recent edition is less important than with textbooks which deal with events, and older or previous editions can often be relatively inexpensive.

Nobody needs ten politics textbooks, not least me, a single edition of the most recent will generally suffice, as long as one understands that each has its limitations and there is much to be gained from dipping into the others from time to time. Having a copy sitting on the edge of one’s desk will be a considerable source of information, a useful prompt to do some reading and an occasional cure for insomnia. For much else the library beckons.

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The Prime Minister and the Party: what can we expect from today’s PMQs?

The Prime Minister’s appearance in the chamber of the House of Commons at lunchtime today is one of the most eagerly anticipated parliamentary events of his turbulent premiership. The Prime Minister and presumably many others on the government benches hoped the story of the Downing Street party last December would quickly disappear but that has certainly not been the case. The fact that no government ministers were available to appear on any of the national news programmes this morning has only heightened the anticipation and thrown the spotlight firmly on the Prime Minister.

What then can we expect from today’s PMQs and what should we be looking for?

Will Conservative MPs turn up? One quick indication about the level of support for the Prime Minister will be whether his own MPs turn up in large numbers to lend support. The Prime Minister performs better with a friendly and rowdy audience at his back but it is clear that many Conservative MPs are not happy with his handling of recent events. At recent PMQs Conservative MPs have voted with their feet by not turning up for PMQs, leaving large gaps on the government benches behind the Prime Minister. It will be interesting to see whether the Ministerial no-shows on the media this morning is reflected in the chamber today.

Will the Prime Minister make an announcement ahead of PMQs? One possible scenario is that the Prime Minister will seek to steal the Leader of the Opposition’s thunder by making an announcement about the Downing Street party in advance of today’s PMQs. He could come clean, admit that there was some form of gathering (the use of the word party is unlikely), that no rules were broken but concede that it shouldn’t have happened. The Prime Minister seems pathologically incapable of apologising so that seems unlikely but several individuals within Downing Street may be asked to resign. Alternately he could announce some form of investigation, perhaps by the Cabinet Secretary, to settle the matter, enabling him to bat away questions in the chamber on the grounds that he will await the results of the investigation before commenting further. None of these approaches, aside perhaps from a fulsome apology, are likely to mean that the Prime Minister won’t be challenged on this issue today, but they may make it easier for him to evade more questions and perhaps make it more difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to criticise the PM. If the announcement is made only shortly before PMQs, Keir Starmer’s job will be even more difficult.

Will the Prime Minister avoid the party question and stick to the line that no rules were broken? The Prime Minister has a habit of pursuing an argument long after his position has become untenable and even the most ardent of supporters have melted away. There is a good chance that he will do the same today by avoiding the question of whether there actually was a party and sticking to the line that at no point were rules broken. Many, particularly on the government benches, have grown tired of this response and just want the Prime Minister to offer a direct response to the question of whether there was a party at Downing Street on the 18th December last year. The Prime Minister may feel that he is able to do a better job of defending this line than those ministers rolled out across the TV networks over the last week but that would be a bold assumption. Moreover, the muddled performance of ministers over the last week coupled with their absence from the networks this morning, has made this position even more untenable.

Will the Prime Minster provide a direct answer to the party question? The tortuous explanation offered by ministers over the last week is a result of the Prime Minister’s decision at a previous PMQs not to answer the direct question of whether a party took place at Downing Street last December. He will almost certainly be asked the question directly again today. Many on the PM’s own benches would desperately like him to answer the question one way or another. The problem for the Prime Minister is that if he admits there was a party, or some form of gathering, it is very difficult for him to claim that Covid rules were not broken. If he chooses to directly answer the question by saying that there wasn’t a party, something which he hasn’t yet done, if further evidence emerges that there was in fact a party he runs the risk of misleading parliament, something which many including on his own backbenches believe would be a resignation issue.

Will the Prime Minister try to get off on a technicality? What perhaps seems more likely is that overnight the Prime Minster will have devised some other argument which allows him admit that something happened which shouldn’t have happened (without using the word party) but that Covid rules were not broken. Ironically the Prime Minister often criticises the Leader of the Opposition for his lawyerly approach at PMQs, but in reality it is the Prime Minister who often relies upon some carefully worded technicality to get him out of trouble. This may work in the short term, but it is unlikely to convince many. The Prime Minister is also a terrible poker player and tends to grin when delivering what he seems to assume are terribly clever but barely tenable responses.

How will the Leader of the Opposition perform? Although this will undoubtedly be a difficult session for the Prime Minister it also presents a significant challenge for the Leader of the Opposition. Today’s PMQs represents an open goal for the Leader of the Opposition but open goals can be notoriously difficult to score. In their book on PMQs,  Punch and Judy Politics, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton argue that an open goal is the worst thing the Leader of the Opposition can face at PMQs, and that high profile sessions like today’s often fizzle out. There are a number of problems facing Keir Starmer today, aside from the possibility that the PM may pre-empt his questions by making an announcement in advance of PMQs, the Prime Minister also knows that he is going to be asked about the Downing Street party so will be well prepared. There is also a question about what the opposition want. Simply asking the Prime Minister to apologise seems quite limited in the circumstances, but at the same time demanding his resignation seems over the top, although the SNP leader Ian Blackford, almost certainly will. The best that the Leader of the Opposition can hope for is that the Prime Minister, like a succession of other ministers this week, will tie himself in circumlocutory knots and he can sit back and watch.

Will the Prime Minister resign? The simple answer is no. While there are many who think he should, we are a long way from that. This is part of a much longer process. Conservative polling, which has recently taken a hit following allegations of sleaze relating to the Owen Paterson resignation, is likely to be further damaged, and if the Prime Minister performs badly the real danger is on the benches behind and indeed alongside him.

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The first rule of politics, learn how to count. What is a House of Commons majority?

US President, Lyndon B. Johnson famously said the first rule of politics was to learn how to count. Politics is not all about voting, but in democracies it is the way in which governments attain power, and once they get it the means by which they drive through their legislative agenda. An ambitious programme for government is worth little if one doesn’t have the numbers to get elected and once elected to turn that programme into law.

In majoritarian systems like the UK, governments hope to do this by winning a majority of seats in Parliament, but what constitutes a parliamentary majority is not always clear and may change over time. Indeed, a government’s majority may be different with each votes that passes.

What is a majority in the House of Commons?

There are 650 seats in the Houses of Commons. In order to be sure of securing their legislative agenda a government needs to hold more than half of those seats, that is 326 seats.

While a plurality (more than half) of the seats in parliament is the magic number on election night, the size of a government’s majority relates to how many more seats it has than all of the other parties in parliament combined. The government’s majority is simply how many more seats a governing party has than the rest of the parties. If the government held only 326 seats, the other parties in parliament would hold the remaining 324 seats giving the government a majority of 2. This is not a very secure majority and the government would need to ensure that most of its MPs were available to vote at almost every vote, but it is a majority

The current government was elected in 2019 with 365 seats, the total number of seats won by the remaining parties was 285, which meant that the government had a majority of 80.

There are, however, a number of MPs who don’t vote in parliament which in effect reduces the size of the House and lowers number of seats needed to have a plurality. The Speaker of the House of Commons by convention does not vote, the Speaker also has three deputies who also don’t vote. These four MPs are usually drawn equally from the two main parties in parliament. The current Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected as a Labour MP. The three deputy speakers are Dame Rosie Winterton who is also a Labour MP, and two Conservative MPs, Dame Eleanor Laing and Nigel Evans. These four MPs don’t vote, which brings the total number of voting MPs down to 646, and the number of seats needed for a majority down from 326 to 324.

In addition to the Speaker and his deputies, seven MPs were elected for the Irish republican party Sinn Fein. These MPs refuse to take the parliamentary oath of allegiance to the Queen and don’t take their seat at Westminster. This reduces the total number of voting MPs in the House of Commons by 11, bringing the size of the House down to 639 seats, and the number of votes needed for a majority down to 320.

The exclusion of MPs who don’t vote also changes the size of the government’s majority. In 2019, of the 639 seats held by voting MPs, 363 were held by Conservative MPs, while the remaining 276 were held by MPs from other parties, leaving the government in effect with a significantly larger majority of 87. This is what is known as the government’s working majority.

In practice then following the 2019 general election in order to win a vote in the House of Commons the government needed to secure at least 320 votes, out of the 363 Conservative MPs. This meant that more than 43 Conservative MPs would need to vote against the government (against the whip) in order for the government to lose a vote in the House of Commons.

How a government’s majority changes

A government’s majority can and often does change in the period between general elections. MPs choose to leave parliament to pursue other careers or through ill health and some may sadly die in office. These departures will result in a by-election which, depending on who wins, may alter the number of seats held by the government or opposition parties. Others may have the whip removed, essentially ejecting them from the parliamentary party. This may be for a variety of reasons: because they have broken parliamentary rules; or broken the law; or because they have refused to vote with the party in parliament. Although these MPs may still sit in parliament, and may continue to vote with their former party, they will not be counted amongst their former party’s MPs. If their behaviour has been sufficiently serious it may trigger a recall procedure which may force them to seek re-election.

All of the above events may result in by-elections which, depending on the result, may change a government’s majority, but it is worth remembering that because there is usually a period of time between an MP leaving parliament and a by-election being held to replace them all by-elections lead to a change in the parliamentary numbers, even if only for a short period of time.

There have been four by-elections since the current government was elected in December 2019. Two of these were held by the same party, in Airdrie and Shotts (SNP) and Batley and Spen (Labour). The Conservatives won the first by-election of the parliament in Hartlepool, briefly increasing their majority, but then lost the seat of Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats.

There are currently three vacant seats in Parliament,  two caused by the death of sitting MPs, James Brokenshire who died of cancer in October and David Amess, who was murdered later the same month. Another by-election has been triggered by the resignation of the MP, Owen Paterson following his suspension from the House for breaching lobbying rules. The departure of these MPs means that the total number of voting MPs in the House of Commons is currently 636, which means 319 votes are needed to win.

Although this is only one less then following the 2019 election, all three of the vacant seats were previously held by Conservative MPs so their departures have had an impact on the government’s majority. In addition, two Conservative MPs have had the whip withdrawn since the 2019 election. Rob Roberts, the Conservative MP for Delyn was suspended from the Conservative Party in 2020 after being suspended from parliament for sexual misconduct. Imran Ahmad Khan, the Conservative MP for Wakefield was also suspended from the party pending trial for an alleged sexual offence.

The cumulative effect of the three pending by-elections and the two suspensions is that the number of seats held by Conservative MPs is currently 360, down from 365 following the 2019 election, and 358 voting members if one discounts the two deputy speakers. Although several opposition MPs have also been suspended by their parties (2 Labour, 1 each from Plaid Cymru and the SNP) as none have yet left parliament this doesn’t have an impact on the government’s majority which only relates to how many more MPs the government has than the remaining parties combined.

As things stand then, with 358 voting Conservative MPs, and 276 other voting MPs, the government has a working majority of 82, down from 87 following the general election.

Of course, with two by-elections scheduled for December and the third presumably shortly after, and the possibility, likelihood perhaps, of more suspensions or MPs stepping down as a result of the renewed focus on MPs second jobs and expenses, the numbers may change again very soon.

Why don’t all MPs vote in every vote?

Finally, why don’t all MPs vote in every vote in parliament and, if the government has a working majority of 82, why does it not win every vote in parliament by 82 votes?

It is relatively rare for all MPs who can vote to vote at the same time in the House of Commons and while it is rare for the government to lose a vote, the size of its majority will vary from vote to vote. In one recent, albeit slightly unusual, day in the House of Commons on different votes the government’s majority ranged from 18 to 275.

On any given day, a number of MPs will be away from the chamber on other business. Government ministers in particular may have a range of other responsibilities which mean that they can’t be in the House of Commons for every vote. For example, in the last week or so, a large number of ministers, as well as MPs from other parties, have been away from Westminster at the COP26 summit in Scotland. At the same time, some MPs may need to be away from the chamber on personal business, to attend family events such as weddings, funerals or school sports days or important events in their constituencies. In recent years MPs have also been given maternity and paternity leave and MPs, like the rest of us, are also occasionally unwell.

In order to allow MPs to be away from the chamber without affecting the outcome of a vote a system of pairing is in place in which an MP wishing to be absent is paired with an MP from an opposition party who will agree not to vote, in order balance the numbers. Pairing means that on any day the number of votes needed for a majority in the House of Commons will often be less than 326.

Pairing is a well-established convention which is administered by the party whips, but it is not without its controversies. In 2018, during the Brexit votes the Conservative Chief Whip told Conservative MPs to break their pairing arrangements including one with the Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth.

Aside from mutual arrangements between MPs who wish to be away from the chamber for various reasons, whether MPs vote will depend on the importance of the vote and whether it is likely to be closely contested. There is a broad acceptance on the part of all parties that if a government has a large majority it can be assured of winning most votes and there is little point in testing this by forcing all of their MPs to vote on every issue. This is partly managed by the whips who will produce a weekly list of forthcoming parliamentary votes and underline them with one, two or three lines depending on how important the vote is. MPs can be assured that on a one-line whip a large number of MPs from both sides of the House will choose to absent themselves and they can safely avoid the vote with little consequence. Moreover, government and opposition parties may not consider the same votes to be important, consequently the difference between the number of government and opposition MPs voting may vary greatly and can exceed the government’s current working majority.

While there is likely to be considerable flexibility on some votes, choosing not to vote on a three-line whip is, however, likely to have serious consequences for the MP concerned. Nevertheless, MPs can and do express their objection to their own party’s position either by voting against the whip or by choosing not to vote at all.

The only votes that are counted at Westminster are those that are made either for or against by walking through the division lobbies. There is no formal mechanism for recording an abstention. At the same time MPs can simply choose not to vote in order to express their unhappiness with what they are being asked to vote on, by staying in the chamber or staying away. Some may wish to go further and vote against their party and vote with the opposition. Although such rebellions, or cross-party voting, are relatively rare in the House of Commons they have become more common in recent years.

One prominent recent example, of both of these things, and of the importance of the parliamentary arithmetic, was the vote for the amendment to overturn the suspension of the Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, and change the standards procedure for the House of Commons. Although the government, in a break with precedent, whipped the vote, only 247 of a possible 358 Conservative MPs voted with the government. Of the 111 Conservative MPs who didn’t support the vote, 13 voted against, which means that 98 did not vote. Some of those 98 MPs would have been paired with opposition MPs who also weren’t in the chamber. However, as only 56 opposition MPs did not vote, at least 41 of the Conservative MPs who didn’t vote with the government could not have been paired with an opposition MP and consequently didn’t vote for some other reason entirely.

That in short is how a government with a working majority of 80, can win a parliamentary vote by only 18.

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