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25 November 2022

On housing, the Tories need Labour’s help not to self-immolate

Rishi Sunak should take up Lisa Nandy’s offer of votes to get the Levelling Up Bill through.

By Henry Hill

The anti-growth coalition – among whose most fearsome stormtroopers have always been sections of the Conservative Party – is on the march. Having seen off Boris Johnson’s planning reforms and Liz Truss, they’re now gunning for the Levelling Up Bill.

If Theresa Villiers, Bob Seely and the other MPs backing their amendments to the legislation get their way, they will all but kill the current planning system stone dead. Every mechanism through which local councils and central government can force through what little housebuilding we currently achieve will be broken.

The long-term impact of such a move would be to demolish the foundations for future Conservative governments. The current toxic cycle, where working-age voters are trapped in house-shares and lose an inordinate share of their income to housing costs, would continue unbroken for the foreseeable future.

That the government, with a handsome paper majority, can be pushed about in this manner is a testament to the extraordinary state of the Conservative Party in parliament. There can be few prime ministers who have entered Downing Street in a weaker position than Rishi Sunak.

But the test of any politician is whether or not they can adapt to events. The Prime Minister cannot drive forward legislation as majority governments traditionally do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t get things done. In this case, Labour is riding to the rescue. Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, has indicated that the opposition is prepared to vote down the Villiers amendment and help get the Levelling Up Bill through. If this offer is sincere, then Sunak should grasp it with both hands. 

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Naturally, it is not always comfortable passing legislation with the help of the opposition, especially in our adversarial system. The spectacle of the government relying on Labour votes will, to some, make the government look weak. The inescapable fact, however, is that the Government is weak – pulling a vote on the bill because of the rebellion proved that. And as Boris Johnson eventually discovered, you cannot for ever preserve the illusion of strength by never applying yourself to getting anything done.

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The simple question for the cabinet is this: do they think the Levelling Up Bill is worth passing? Will it be good for the country? If so, it is their duty to get it through, even if it means facing down the “local patriots” on their own back benches.

Sunak might also find that collaborating with Labour on worthwhile legislation does not look half so bad as the shrieking of a few partisans might suggest. Most voters are not especially tribal, certainly when compared with those who live and work in the Westminster bubble. They want to see their politicians getting on with the job and tackling the issues that matter to them.

There may well be plenty of people, especially those 2019 Tory voters alienated by the strident tone of the past year or so, who quite like seeing the Prime Minister prepared to work with politicians from other parties.

[See also: Lisa Nandy: The lessons of a housing tragedy, writing through rail chaos, and why good manners cost nowt]

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