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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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