The Commons will host another odd coalition situation this afternoon, as MPs vote on Nick de Bois’ amendment to the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill which introduces mandatory minimum sentences for repeat knife offences. Nick Clegg and David Cameron have agreed to waive collective responsibility for this vote. The Lib Dems who have publicly opposed this policy, will vote against. Tory backbenchers will be free to do as they please, as will PPSs, but ministers will abstain on the amendment.
This looks a bit poor: David Cameron has made clear that he supports the de Bois amendment, which is a means of bypassing the Lib Dems to get this policy onto the statute books. But Number 10 says the reason is that the Conservatives could not get agreement on supporting the policy, and as the normal convention when a government does not support a policy is to vote against it, ministers must abstain. I’ve been passed the whips’ daily email to Tory MPs which explains the stance:
‘As a party, we support Nick de Bois’s proposals in principle but because this is not agreed Coalition policy Conservative Ministers must abstain. Other colleagues (including PPSs, Party Vice-Chairman etc) are free to vote in favour.’
This is the whips defining the government payroll vote as narrowly as possible. They do the opposite when they think they are going to lose in a rebellion. Pragmatically, it doesn’t really matter as Labour has said it will vote with de Bois and therefore the sentences will be introduced. The most important thing is that they’re introduced at all, even though it still looks a bit strange.