Can Boris crack the unwhippables?

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

‘Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won,’ wrote the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo. This sentiment, rather than any form of triumphalism, is what Tory whips should feel after winning the vote on the government’s decision to reduce spending on foreign aid from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5. The vote is a sign of the battles to come in the rest of this parliament.

The government put its authority on the line in the Commons debate. The Prime Minister opened it, the Chancellor closed it. The government also offered something of a concession, a pledge to return to 0.7 once the current budget was balanced. The result was a government majority of 35, which sounds comfortable enough, yet the make-up of the rebellion reveals a problem for the whips. Of the 24 Tories who voted against the government, 14 are former ministers. The overwhelming majority of these are either uninterested in returning to ministerial office or are only interested in doing so on their terms. This means the usual whips’ line — if you keep your nose clean preferment might come your way — is ineffective. This group is essentially unwhippable.

Nearly all of these former ministers were in government under Theresa May or David Cameron. This means some of them take a rather wry view of appeals from Boris Johnson’s allies to rally round the party. They argue that Johnson wasn’t restrained by loyalty to the leader when choosing which side to back in the 2016 referendum or when voting on May’s Brexit deal, so why should they be? In May’s speech on the aid cuts she explained why she was voting against a three-line whip for the first time in her parliamentary career. She included the pointed line: ‘As prime minister I suffered at the hands of rebels; I know what it is like to see party colleagues voting against their government.’

The worry for the government is that the aid vote is far from the most difficult they will have to get through this parliament. Yes, 0.7 was a manifesto commitment, but the reduction is also accepted by the party membership and, rarely for a cut in public expenditure, it is actually popular with the public. Votes on issues that directly affect MPs’ constituents — planning reform, social care and possibly vaccine passports — will be much harder for the government.

When the Commons returns from the summer recess, the government will have to decide what to do about planning. Planning reform was always going to require a Tory government to expend a fair amount of political capital. Building more houses where people want to live is always going to risk irritating those who already live in these places. But for a party that is serious about both property ownership and economic growth, it is a necessary policy to pursue.

The government has already tweaked the formula it is using to determine how many new homes need to be built and where to ease the pressure on Conservative constituencies in the south-east. But the plans in the white paper, which would see some developments approved automatically if they were in line with local building plans, are still controversial on the Tory benches. One of those charged with counting the parliamentary numbers doesn’t think the government has the votes to get the plans through the Commons without more significant concessions.

Part of the problem for the Tories is last month’s Chesham and Amersham by-election, where the Liberal Democrats dramatically overturned a 16,000 Tory majority. The Lib Dems campaigned heavily on their opposition to planning reform and this has made Tory MPs in seats where the Liberal Democrats poll second more nervous about the proposals. Perhaps the biggest danger for the Tories is that they dilute their plans but the Liberal Democrats and others still blame any developments on the changes.

Social care is an issue almost as difficult for the Tories as planning. When Johnson entered No. 10, he promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared’. Two years on, no plan has been unveiled. Yet the pandemic has highlighted the problems in the social care sector, particularly the reliance on low-paid agency staff, which was one of the things that led to the virus being introduced into care homes with such devastating effect.

What complicates matters is that the reliance on low-paid agency staff is not the problem the Tory manifesto promised to solve. Rather, it said it would ensure that no one had to sell their home to pay for care. This leads to a cap on care costs, but such a policy is expensive. Indeed, the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid has already implicitly accepted that taxes may have to rise to pay for it. Yet the Tory manifesto rules out raising income tax, National Insurance or VAT.

Then there is Covid ‘certification’: the idea that venues check visitors are vaccinated or have a negative test. At the moment, the official guidance is that places should use such a scheme. But government documents make clear that if ‘sufficient measures are not taken to limit infection’ then it will consider making certification compulsory. Any attempt to do this would undoubtedly run into furious opposition from the more libertarian Tory MPs. Steve Baker, a formidable organiser on the Tory benches, has already made it clear he will oppose any move towards this. On Tuesday night, 30 Tory backbenchers voted against making it mandatory for those working in care homes to have the vaccine. One would expect more to vote against certification if the government tried to formally introduce it.

Finally, there is — as this column discussed last week — the politics of the backlog. Javid has warned that the NHS waiting list could reach 13 million. If this is the case, it will be hard for a government that has tried to turn itself into the high priest of the national religion to refuse demands from the health service for more money. But the more resources that go into dealing with this backlog, the less there will be for dealing with the problems in the criminal justice system and education.

At first blush the government’s position seems strong. It has a large majority, a sizable lead in the opinion polls and is up against an opposition leader who has struggled to make much of an impression with the public. The next few years, though, will be much tougher for them than this suggests.

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