Michael Gove, Theresa May, George Osborne and David Willetts at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder