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23 June 2020

A perfect storm causes Boris Johnson’s first parliamentary defeat since the election

The defeat is a symptom of Downing Street’s poor parliamentary management – and will make it harder to win tricky votes in the future.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has suffered his first parliamentary defeat since the general election after 46 Conservative MPs, including his predecessor Theresa May, joined the opposition to vote against plans that would have allowed MPs to vote on and discuss allegations of harassment and workplace misbehaviour made against them in the House of Commons. Thanks to an amendment by Labour’s Chris Bryant, the complaints will instead be tackled via a genuinely independent process. Most embarrassingly for the government, Penny Mordaunt, a sitting minister, rebelled against the plans.

It is a major victory for parliament’s cross-party band of serious anti-bullying campaigners, and a particular triumph for former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and Labour’s Meg Hillier, two of the highest-profile MPs who can say they spoke out against bullying both when it benefited Remainers to ignore allegations against John Bercow, and when it embarrassed a Brexiteer government to vote against it.

The defeat, both in its scale and its cross-generational spread, will raise further questions about the government’s parliamentary management and intelligence-gathering. In addition to former ministers – most notably May and Leadsom, but the likes of Harriet Baldwin, Mark Harper, David Jones and Tim Loughton also voted against the government – and longtime mavericks such as Bernard Jenkin, 22 MPs from the 2019 intake rebelled, 20 of them for the first time. It’s a general rule that once MPs have rebelled once they are more likely to do so again, and it makes the whips’ lives much, much harder.  

Add that to the government’s ongoing and self-created problem with men elected in 2015, and it created the perfect storm.

The reason for the defeat was simple: the government’s plans were terrible. There are a lot of issues in politics that come down to difficult trade-offs or questions of ideology, but on this: the government was just in the wrong. The plans would have placed the victims of workplace bullying in an invidious position – one reason why so many MPs rebelled is they felt, as one put it to me, that it was simply not something they could say to their own families and friends they had backed, while another said they couldn’t have looked their own parliamentary staff “in the face” had they backed the plans. The government ought to have U-turned and accepted Bryant’s amendment, heading off another rebellion.

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Now it faces a number of self-inflicted problems: a large group of first-time rebels, many of whom will likely feel freer to vote with their consciences in the future. (As a whip once explained to me, the first time an MP rebels, they feel terribly worried about it. They wake up the next day, they are still alive, the world is still spinning on its axis, and they feel more inclined to vote with their principles in future. This is why one of Gavin Williamson’s underrated skills as chief whip was knowing when to retreat.)  They also have the tricky question of what to do about Mordaunt’s rebellion: firing someone draws attention to the substance of the row, which is a textbook example of politicians seeking to set their own rules, and would add another charismatic and potentially troublesome presence to the backbenches, exactly what this government already has too many of. Not firing her sends a signal that rebellions are consequence-free: exactly the signal that this government does not want to send.

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It’s a reminder of one of the truths of this parliament: that the last election produced a landslide defeat for Labour but not a landslide majority for the Conservatives. Independent-minded backbenchers – of whom there are an awful lot – can defeat a government that reads the mood of its own MPs wrong. And when Downing Street puts relatively little effort and energy into gauging the mood of its MPs, defeats like this will happen more often than they should.