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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Unusual channels

3 min read

In her occasional despatch from inside the legislative machine, Salma Shah shares the whips’ pain, and spots the use of a time-saving procedure that keeps open the chance of May election

Disappearing messages
In the good old days the promise of a job could be relied upon to keep unruly back benchers largely in check, but with so many on the government benches standing down and already in receipt of a gong there’s little to motivate departing members.

This apathy on the benches is changing the political calculus, according to those counting. While the notional government majority may be 58, in reality the numbers are dependent on the ‘no-shows’ and rebels on any given vote. The whips will no doubt be mulling over the varying and depleted size of the government majority bill by bill.

Those abstaining members must be the shy Tories we hear so much about? 

Fortune favours the brave

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above, government chief whip Simon Hart is playing a cautious game. Indeed it reminds some of Theresa May’s premiership after the snap election when the whips operation was all-but paralysed. 

While it’s true that passing even electorally-enticing legislation is an uphill task right now, some wonder whether there’s a danger of no risk, no reward? There’s plenty of legislation to choose from if business managers were to find a little courage.

Buds of May

Eagle-eyed pass-holders may have noticed a subtle but important change in the Commons of late. Committees of the Whole House, normally reserved for contentious issues, have been in more frequent use.

Nikki da Costa, former director of legislative affairs and now partner at Flint Global, explains: “In the Commons it is unusual to put bills into the Committee of the Whole House if they are relatively uncontroversial. But it can also shave off at least a month from a bill’s passage, and using it for the Animal Welfare Bill, the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, and the Sentencing Bill will help keep them in play for ‘wash up’ if there was a May election. It certainly looks like business managers are doing everything possible to make sure May remains a viable option.”

So even if the PM is holding a firm line for an autumn election, an earlier ballot won’t be out of the question. Perhaps even wise to give yourself the option?

Another one?

‘Opposition days’ are allocated in the House of Commons for the discussion of subjects chosen by the opposition parties. Under Standing Order 14, there are 20 days allocated for this purpose per session: 17 days for the main opposition and three for the next one along. 

Why, then, are they appearing like buses? Three in February alone, with Labour taking two on 6 February? With the Commons so quiet, perhaps business managers are filling time, but the government should be cautious. Too many opposition days are a platform for the parties opposite. 

Old wine

Everyone’s getting in on the podcasting game. Including the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, with the wittily titled Lord Speaker’s Corner. He gently guides his guests through their chat as they recount stories from their heyday. 

But proving there is nothing new under the sun was Baron Forsyth of Drumlean, who reminded us of a former female PM on the back benches making trouble for the incumbent. 

In fact, Lord Forsyth as Scottish secretary, did manage some very difficult issues pre-devolution. A timely reminder that there is still some considerable experience and expertise in the Upper Chamber, for now at least. 

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