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Government's Double Climbdown Exposes "Varied" Whipping Operation, MP Says

Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street (Alamy)

4 min read

A former minister has said parliamentary handling of the Levelling Up Bill, over which Rishi Sunak was forced into two major climbdowns, was a “model of how not to do it”, in a sharp criticism of the government's "varied" whipping operation.

On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak backed down on the ban on onshore wind, agreeing to a consultation to allow future developments. Only a day earlier, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove agreed to scrap the central government’s mandatory national housing targets

Two different sets of MPs had ringmastered the rebellions, with Theresa Villiers and Bob Seely gaining the support of 60 backbenchers for their amendment on housing targets, while two former prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss backed Simon Clarke's efforts to reverse a moratorium on building new turbines that has been in place since 2015.

A former minister told PoliticsHome the double climbdown – one expanding the possibility of planning, the other curbing it – showed the government’s whipping operation is “very varied at the moment”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” was their initial reaction to the Levelling Up Department's (DLUHC) handling of the matters, although they did offer praise for the government for finally getting the online safety bill through the Commons this week.

They said ministers and whips have failed on “parliamentary engagement”, and that the government has been left with “some square pegs in round holes” after Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle when he entered No 10.

“There's been some good work done, but I'm sure the PM will be reflecting on the fact they’ve ended up making multiple big concessions on one bill, where the parliamentary handling was a model of how not to do it,” they added. 

There have been suggestions that Sunak has acquiesced to the two rebellions on the Levelling Up bill in order to avoid further rows among MPs, allowing him to instead dedicate his attention to passing legislation in the twin areas he’s focusing on: the economy and small boats crossing the Channel.

Earlier on Wednesday, health secretary Steve Barclay defended the latest U-turn amid accusations that Sunak was no longer in charge of Government policy.

"The fact that the Prime Minister has taken a very strong stand in terms of the priority of getting inflation down," he told Sky News.

"I think it's important that we listen to colleagues, that is our parliamentary process. It's important that we do these things with local consent."

Under the new wind proposals DLUHC said planning permission would be dependent on demonstrating local support and "appropriately" addressing any impacts identified by the community, and has pledged to ensure "strong environmental protections" remain in place.

Clarke tweeted last night that it was a “pragmatic outcome that I welcome warmly” and that it would "enable onshore wind to be delivered while enshrining the vital principle of community consent”.

One of the Tory MPs who backed Clarke’s campaign, veteran backbencher Desmond Swayne, told PoliticsHome that while her personally dislikes onshore wind farms, he finds the amendment "permissive".

"If a local area wants them, why should we stand in their way?,” he said. 

Another Conservative who signed the amendment, Torbay MP Kevin Foster, said he welcomed a change that meant local areas should be able to decide for themselves, rather then having a blanket ban.

“There's a lot of working families at the moment who would welcome getting a discount on their electricity bills in exchange for building something that is not dissimilar to perhaps the electricity pylons they already have to look at in the distance anyway,” he told PoliticsHome.

“This is why I believe this fits in with Conservative values, this is about supporting growth, supporting domestic energy security.

"It’s not a magic bullet, because you still got to have nuclear and other things for that baseload generation, but to just have a blanket 'no' is wrong.

“Some people won't want it in their area, well fine your local council can say no, but I think there'll be plenty of others that will take the opportunity, particularly areas where there's already other infrastructure there, where it gives a big opportunity for communities to benefit directly – not just an esoteric benefit cheaper energy sources overall.”

But Tory MP Sir John Hayes, who had led a counter-offensive against the Clarke amendment, told LBC this morning the decision to allow onshore wind turbines would cost his party "tens of thousands of votes".

He said: “It means destroying bats and birds and other wildlife. It'll have the effect of damaging people’s quality of life and wellbeing, of lowering their house prices.”

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