Collective responsibility lifted for vote over boundary review

First suspension for a vote in the house since 1977.

The Prime Minister has formally announced that the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility is to be suspended with regards to the vote on the boundary review. This grants the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives the right to whip against each other when the issue returns to the commons after the defeat in the Lords on Monday.

Collective responsibility allows for cabinet members to disagree in private provided they remain, in public, united. It's a crucial part of the so-called "payroll vote", the name for the core group of MPs who, by virtue having salaried government positions, will never rebel. In addition, it dampens down the damage of actual splits in opinion within cabinet.

That latter aim has been tested under the coalition for a while, with Vince Cable in particular being generally outspoken about his disagreements. But this marks the first time this cabinet will explicitly be allowed to split in a division in the commons. In fact, aside from a blip in 2003, when Clare Short was allowed to remain in the cabinet despite voting against war with Iraq – although she later resigned – it also marks the first time in the post-war era.

As George writes, lifting cabinet responsibility has happened several times when it comes to referenda. Wilson allowed his cabinet to campaign on opposite sides of the 1975 in/out referendum; and the coalition itself formally allowed a split over the AV referendum in 2010.

But as far as I can tell, this marks the first time collective responsibility will be formally lifted for a vote in the house since 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald's National Government was split over whether or not to introduce protectionist tariffs. It marks a large constitutional watershed – and raises questions about whether coalitions can ever be viable in the British political system.

Update

Martin Shapland points out that the precendent is more recent than that: 

And adds a discussion of the difference between constitution, statute and convention.

Photograph: Getty Images/Edited: Alex Hern

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.