The Cooper amendment: why Labour should be wary of unintended consequences
Yvette Cooper’s plan to take control of Commons business would represent a victory for backbenchers – but the Labour frontbench should be wary of unintended consequences, writes Tony Grew
The amendment laid down by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles, if it is selected by the Speaker on Tuesday and approved by MPs, would mark a significant departure from the way business is organised in the Commons. The measure would overturn standing order no.14 – which states that ‘save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting’ – and give precedence to a private members bill designed to remove the possibility of no deal. It would merely require a business of the House motion signed by 10 MPs elected from four different parties and the two promoters of the bill to be approved for that bill to take precedence and then be rushed through its Commons stages.
The Commons is controlled by the government. Ministers decide which days will be allocated for the 20 opposition days, the 27 days in the chamber for backbench business, and the 13 Fridays for private members bills set out in standing order no.14.
The creation of the Backbench Business Committee in 2010 was in itself a significant change, but it was supposed to be followed by the creation of a House Business Committee. It would have been chaired by a deputy Speaker and comprise elected Members of the Backbench Business Committee and frontbenchers from the three major parties. They would draw up the business of the House, with ministers having “first call” on House time for government business.
Pretty tame stuff, really. Everyone agreed in principle. It was to be created by the third year of the coalition parliament. Lib Dem deputy Commons leader David Heath hailed it as “a totally different way of managing the House’s business, which will be a good thing”.
As of January 2019, it may well still be a good thing, but it hasn’t been created. There was no consensus on how it would work. Attitudes had hardened, on both sides. Some government whips and business managers adopted a “this shall not pass” attitude to what they saw as a ‘let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya’ approach to how the Commons is run.
Many of those on the other side who aspired to be the next government agreed. The Leader of the House Andrew Lansley took to referring to the “diversity of views” on the new committee’s role as a roadblock to progress. It seemed the usual channels preferred their way of working. After the Conservatives won a majority in 2015, the idea was definitively dropped.
The lesson would appear to be that governments, whether Conservative or Labour, minority or coalition, don’t give away powers when they don’t need to. Labour aspire to be the next government, and if they achieve that goal they may not find themselves with a working majority. If the Cooper-Boles plan is approved it could create a precedent, but one that will not trouble any future government with a majority to change standing orders at will.
Last week’s repeated mistakes with the results of double majority divisions were a reminder that the Cameron government rammed through pages of new standing orders on English votes for English laws with little attention paid to the objections of opposition parties. It is reported that Labour is minded to whip its MPs to support Cooper-Boles, inflicting a defeat on the government and scoring a victory for the backbenchers. Forcing the government to do something it does not want to do is a brilliant idea when you aren’t the government.
Chris White, now the MD of Newington, spent six years in the Commons backroom as a special adviser to the chief whip and the leader of the Commons from 2009 to 2015. He is one of a number of people whose obscure but vital knowledge of our constitutional and parliamentary arrangements was once of very little interest to anyone and is now the subject of front-page news stories. “The government of the day must be able to guarantee control of its business in the Commons,” he explained to me. “That’s ultimately why the coalition government decided to drop its commitment to the house business committee. What we are going to see on Tuesday with the Cooper amendment is this fear being realised – the legislature prepared to change the timetable to prevent consideration of government business on a specific day.”
Governments have changed things before without realising the consequences. The EVEL provisions were created to solve a problem that didn’t exist and don’t change anything, except giving the Mace a bit of a workout. The fixed-term parliaments act, an insurance policy cooked up during what turned out to be a very stable coalition government, has had a major unintended impact on our politics. If it succeeds, will the Cooper-Boles plan be another EVEL or an FTPA?
John Bercow’s bladder was of much interest to MPs as he has stayed in the Chair in recent weeks for the long debates on Brexit. Jim Shannon, who spends almost as much time in the chamber as Mr Speaker, praised the organ directly, calling it “incredible” and noting jealously: “Mine would never be as good as yours.” Liam Fox is also on the record. “As a doctor, I admire good bladder control.” How does he do it? The secret, according to a well-placed source, is not drinking much water until the last hour of the debate, and a supply of fruit sweets.
The Commons is expected to approve new temporary standing orders to allow MPs on maternity, paternity and adoption leave to have a proxy vote. The increasing number of MPs having babies, and my column last week on the subject, are thought to have been the catalysts for change. Jess Phillips has made her position clear, threatening any MP who objects that “me and my feminist army” will make their lives a misery. This struck a chord on Twitter. Alison Thewliss said: “Can someone make badges?” Phillips herself told putative members of her army to “look out for the signal”.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.