"If the Queen’s Speech is amended, the Prime Minister must resign"

Were the EU referendum amendment passed, Cameron would either have to resign or abandon centuries of parliamentary convention.

If the prospect of government MPs tabling an amendment to the Queen's Speech wasn't unusual enough (it hasn't happened since 1946), it now appears that David Cameron may be prepared to take the extraordinary step of supporting them. The Sun reports that Cameron is ready to vote in favour of the Conservative amendment, which "Respectfully regrets that an EU referendum bill was not included in the gracious speech". A No. 10 source tells the paper: "The PM is determined to make as many people as possible aware how keen he is to hold this referendum.

"This amendment backs up his policy, which is a Conservative Party policy, so why shouldn’t he vote for it too?"

In other words, the Prime Minister may be about to rebel against his own government. That really would put us in uncharted territory. As the Parliament website states, by convention, "If the Queen’s Speech is amended, the Prime Minister must resign." The last time an amendment was successful was in 1924 when Labour tabled a motion of no confidence in Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government. After the motion was passed by 328 votes to 251, Baldwin resigned as prime minister and Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government. 

With Labour and the Liberal Democrats set to vote against the amendment (they have 314 MPs to the Tories' 305), there's almost no chance of it passing (although at least two Labour MPs, John Cryer and Kelvin Hopkins, have signed the amendment and there's always the option of abstaining...). But were the Tory rebels successful, it is clear that Cameron would either have to resign or abandon centuries of parliamentary convention. 

Update: It look as if there may be an escape route for Cameron. I've just spoken to the Commons Information Office which has informed me that as a result of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a successful amendment to the Queen's Speech is no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government. This is because, for the first time, the bill offered a legal definition of a no confidence vote - a motion stating that "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government." - meaning that defeats on matters such as the Queen's Speech or the Budget are no longer regarded as votes of no confidence in the government. Prior to the act, as the Information Office put it, "it was a motion of no confidence if everyone agreed that it was a motion of no confidence." 

A 2010 briefing note from the House of Commons Library had suggested that some ambiguity remained. It stated that it was "not clear whether a defeat on a motion or issue of confidence would count as a vote of no confidence for the purposes of the legislation.  For example, it is not clear whether a defeat on the Government’s budget would be considered as a vote of no confidence." It went on to suggest that "One possibility would be for the Government to make it clear before such a division that they considered it to be a matter of confidence; then the Speaker would certify it as such. This would effectively allow the Government to table a constructive vote of no confidence." 

But the Commons Information Office confirmed to me that this was not an option legally available to the government. 

I asked earlier whether, rather than resigning, Cameron would abandon centuries of parliamentary convention. It turns out he already has. 

David Cameron addresses the Global Investment Conference in London on May 9, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle