Wednesday’s Opposition Day debate calling for the universal credit rollout to be paused offers a lesson in how quickly Theresa May’s minority government can become unstuck. In an attempt to kill off a Tory rebellion on the issue of the ill-fated universal credit roll out, David Gauke kicked off his morning announcing DWP is scrapping charges to the benefit helpline. When this wasn’t enough to stop all 25 potential rebels from joining Labour in the division lobbies, the Tories are thought to have issued a three-line whip for MPs to abstain so as to avoid a potential defeat.
In response to this news, opposition parties have been quick to go on the attack, with the Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael calling the plot an ‘outrageous attempt to subvert democracy’. If the whips’ plan works (and it’s worth noting that only one Tory MP is currently expected to vote with Labour), it will be a small victory for the government. An abstention on the issue is much less damaging than a defeat in a contested vote – which would be symbolic even if it wasn’t binding.
But the problem for the whips is that they have four more years of trying to govern without a majority. When the EU withdrawal bill, which is currently paused, returns to the Commons, the government will have to contest – and win – every vote. As I write in the i paper today, the realities of four and a half more years with no Tory majority are beginning to dawn on the party. Despite May’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP, her working majority is so tight that the Whips’ Office can’t afford more than a handful of rebels at one time.
A minority government has to function on a combination of goodwill and fear of the alternative. That alternative is Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister and so far this threat has worked so well that the government is yet to lose a single vote. This is in part down to a brutally efficient Whips’ Office (with it’s own WhipsApp WhatsApp group, natch) that has operated watertight operation to reign in rebellious MPs. Already in the works is a ‘naughty list’ of Tory MPs who could mean trouble for the government. Parliamentary Private Secretaries – the lowest rung of the government ladder – have been given names of MPs to keep a close eye on.
It’s no coincidence that the minister most concerned about plans for a post-Budget reshuffle is Chief Whip Gavin Williamson. The most difficult rebels to rein in are sacked ministers – such as Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. A reshuffle risks increasing their number. If May’s government makes it to Christmas without losing a vote, there will be reason for festive cheer. The bad news is that even if this happens, things are likely to only get tougher in the new year.