Michael Gove, Theresa May, George Osborne and David Willetts at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Cameron's zombie government has nothing of substance to offer

The lack of government legislation is so great that ministers are now constantly increasing the days allocated to Opposition motions.

This week the Commons is on a half-term recess. Since our return in January, MPs have devoted just 13 days to debating government legislation. The remaining time has been taken up with debating motions put down by the Opposition on issues such as housing, the NHS and qualified teachers as well as backbench business debates.

The lack of legislation from the government is unusual by recent standards. Through the 2012-13 session of Parliament, MPs spent a total of just 284 hours and six minutes scrutinising this Tory-led government's legislation. In the equivalent year of the previous Labour government's 2005-10 parliament, it was 373 hours and 36 minutes, and in the 2001-05 parliament, 389 hours and 24 minutes.

The lack of government legislation is such that ministers are now constantly increasing the days allocated to Opposition motions because they have no business of their own. We still have 14 months or so of the present Parliament left to run and we still don't know when the Queen's Speech will be. We have, however, become accustomed to reading newspaper reports that the ongoing work of government is becoming deadlocked and that the Queen's Speech - when it does eventually turn up  - will be a "vacuous public relations exercise."

Every week in the Commons, Leader of the House Andrew Lansley tries to hide his embarrassment at the lack of legislation by defending the increased use of backbench business debates. As Labour's shadow leader of the house, Angela Eagle, has pointed out: "The House voted by 125 to two to set up a commission to study the effects of social security cuts on poverty; nothing has been done since. In 2012, we voted to stop the badger cull; the plans to roll out the cull are still in place. In 2013, the House voted to make sex and relationship education in our schools compulsory; that has not been done."

It's no surprise David Cameron wants to avoid bringing anything of substance to the Commons. He's unable to deal with his increasingly fractious backbenchers and his authority is draining away. Perhaps most extraordinarily of all, we've recently witnessed the pathetic sight of a Conservative Prime Minister sitting on his hands while the Commons voted on an backbench Tory rebel amendment to government legislation (on foreign prisoners) which he had been advised was illegal.

But not only has David Cameron lost control of his own backbenchers, he has also lost control of Parliament. This month the government was forced into legislating on banning smoking in cars with children only because of the clever parliamentary tactics of Labour's health team in the Lords and Luciana Berger in the Commons.

In an attempt to placate backbenchers, loyal Tory MPs are now rewarded with "trade envoy" jobs or seats on the Tory No 10 Policy Board. Sadly for the lucky few rewarded with such grand appointments, the real view of David Cameron's inner circle was revealed by the Telegraph recently - "some people in No 10 openly regard the MPs on the board as something of a joke." With messages like that emanating from the No 10 bunker, no wonder Tory MPs remain so divided.

But the ongoing shambolic handling of legislation and his utter weakness in the face of recalcitrant backbench MPs reflects a wider truth about David Cameron's leadership. He has failed on his big promise to modernise the Tory party and instead simply strands up for the privileged few. In his eighth year as Conservative leader, he allows respected women MPs to be deselected and let others from the 2010 intake walk away.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet simply don't put in the hard detailed policy work needed to legislate effectively. Incredibly, it seems he would rather be remembered as the Prime Minister who cut taxes for millionaires - he still refuses to offer a cast iron pledge he wouldn't cut them further. The Tory response to the rising cost-of-living crisis has been to try to kid people into believing they are actually better off when the reality is ordinary working people are £1,600 a year worse off. On the daily events that crash into a Prime Minister's in-tray he is often slow to react. The leadership vacuum in the early days of the flooding crisis was sadly filled by bickering ministers and an unedifying blame game.

Instead of this zombie government, hamstrung by paralysis, David Cameron could of course use the remaining time left in the Parliament to introduce measures to relieve the cost-of-living pressures our hard pressed constituents are facing. In the next Queen's Speech, he could bring forward legislation to freeze energy bills, reset the energy market, expand childcare, strengthen the national minimum wage or introduce greater banking competition. I fear we'll just get more of the same – a weak Prime Minister capitulating to his backbench rebels, standing up for a privileged few and offering no hope to hard-working people.

Jon Ashworth is shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Leicester South

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.