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.


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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.