The headlines emanating from Westminster this week have focused, of course, on Brexit. We learnt this week that the EU Withdrawal Bill will have its second reading on 14-15 November. At time of writing there are 397 proposed new clauses and amendments to the Bill, a significant headache for the Government which has the unenviable task of wading through them. This impact is being felt across Government.
Yet the Government’s challenges go far wider than Brexit. Behind the scenes, opposition MPs are up-in-arms about changes being made to how the Government is handling opposition day debates (ODDs). 17 ODDs are granted in each parliamentary session to the Official Opposition and a further three to second largest opposition party.
Traditionally, the Government will wield its House of Commons majority to defeat or amend ODD motions. Between January 1978 and April 2009 successive governments were not defeated in a single ODD.
However, in the last month, the Government has whipped backbenchers to abstain on ODD motions on NHS pay, housing benefit and social care, and was defeated on a motion on Universal Credit. Conservative MPs have been directed to abstain on all future motions. ODD motions are of course symbolic. All the Government has to do is respond to them and on Thursday Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, confirmed that Ministers would respond within 12 weeks to motions passed in ODDs.
This unusual situation is a symptom of the huge ‘bandwidth’ that the Government has been forced to allocate to Brexit, and a sign of the challenge facing Government whips, who are trying to manage a minority government and keep their powder dry for the votes that matter.
The Government’s tactic avoids forcing Conservative MPs to defend positions which history tells us are sometimes subject to a u-turn after the event. Opposition critics, of course, accuse the Government of “bypassing Parliament”.But where does this leave policy issues that pre-date or aren’t directly related to Brexit – which may now be denied even the oxygen of parliamentary debate?
On Wednesday MPs debated a Labour ODD motion on social care. The challenges in social care are well-documented and successive governments have kicked the issue into the long grass. If the problem is clear, then all the solutions appear politically painful. Losing Conservative candidates from the 2017 election can attest to exactly why the issue has found itself in the long grass for so long. At Prime Minister’s Questions this week Theresa May reiterated her commitment to publish “a full and open consultation on ideas and proposals.” Yet few believe that these ideas will actually become substantive proposals before Parliament.
The needs of our ageing population will not, of course, wait for political convenience. The NHS is readying itself for a challenging winter, and Trusts are struggling to meet new targets for reductions in delayed transfers of care.
There are no easy answers, and Wednesday’s debate was characterised by calls from both sides of the House for a cross-party approach to reaching a sustainable social care solution. Given the charged nature of the health and care debate, this call may well be in vain. The Prime Minister has made clear her determination that “Britain must not be defined by Brexit.” This is easy to say, but creating the political headroom to deliver meaningful domestic policy change will be harder in practice.