Departmental questions in the House of Commons are generally an opportunity for backbenchers of all parties to hold the government to account. But a strange pattern is emerging at Defence Questions, whereby the backbenchers of each of the two main parties pour their efforts into making life uncomfortable for their own frontbenchers, even though Labour’s team isn’t actually in government.
So today Michael Fallon and his ministers had to contend with complaints from Sir Edward Leigh about the suggestion that Britain leaving the European Union would harm Britain’s national security. But Emily Thornberry, who is supposed to focus her fire and that of her party on ministers, had to deal with an even stronger barrage of grumbling from her own Labour colleagues about her stance on Trident, with John Woodcock arguing that ‘those who remain true to the spirit of Attlee’ would continue to support the renewal of the nuclear deterrent, and Kevan Jones warning that those who thought there was an ‘easy option to cancel this programme’ needed to confront the fact that such a cancellation would be ‘disastrous’ not just for the defence of the country but also for jobs. John Spellar pushed the Defence Secretary to put the question to the Commons, pointing out that there was already a majority in the House for renewal.
Thornberry herself produced a decent question on the scrutiny of the costs of the Trident, which was that there had been no meetings between the Ministry of Defence and the Single Source Regulations Office on the Trident Successor programme. Her examination of the arrangements for the new submarines is exactly what an Opposition frontbencher should be doing, but it is also an attempt to make the case to her own party that she is examining the issue carefully too.
That Thornberry’s attention is divided between her own colleagues and the government frontbench might have helped Fallon a little, but he also had to take endless questions from MPs about what the UK’s plans were for greater involvement in Libya. Philip Hammond has made a surprise visit to Libya for talks with the country’s new Prime Minister-designate Fayez Sarraj, and MPs were keen to find out whether the government was planning to deploy ground troops to the country, and to seek assurances from ministers about whether they would seek the consent of Parliament before doing so. As James reported earlier, the government is refusing to enshrine the convention of consulting parliament on military action, and while Fallon confirmed that ministers should not be ‘artificially constrained’ when taking decisions on defence, but that they would continue to keep parliament informed. He said it was ‘too early’ to say what the Libyan government wanted from its international allies. But MPs are now clearly alert to the possibility that the new government may want something – and will continue drilling away on the issue whenever they have the opportunity – just as Labour’s backbenchers aren’t going to stop grumbling about Trident any time soon.