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

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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