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Is Theresa May’s government struck by paralysis?

PUBLISHED: 14:54 20 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 October 2017

Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture PA.

Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Labour’s victory over the government on their Universal Credit proposals was an extraordinary spectacle.

The Opposition day motion – a tool within the parliamentary system which allows the party not in power to set the agenda in the House of Commons on selected days – prompted a three-line whip from the Conservatives.

Nothing unusual there? Perhaps ... except the whips ordered Tory MPs to abstain from the vote.

The plan was that if no Tories were voting there would be no division – no vote essentially, and therefore no defeat.

And that seemed to be the way the debate was heading until Labour MPs shouted their opposition to their own motion in the chamber prompting the need for a vote. Of course their opposition was false and the government was defeated by 299 votes to zero.

The government has some serious questions to answer about this really rather sad display of abstinence. Is there a plan to avoid the usual conventions of parliament now that Theresa May has squandered her majority? Because this was an opposition motion it was not binding, but does that make it meaningless?

These debates should not be meaningless – the fact the discussion is able to take place and there is a vote stands at the very core of our democracy. Is the Tory Party abstaining from democracy because it is afraid of losing face?

One Tory MP, Sarah Wollaston, did defy the whip and voted with Labour. But plenty more were left furious yet feeling unable to defy the order.

Another Tory politician told me: “I am very uncomfortable about being whipped to abstain. This is not the kind of move I expected from my party. It is vital that we are able to have Opposition day motions and votes, we can’t just ignore them. It’s complete nonsense.

“The message it sends out is one of weakness. And that, I am afraid is the truth.

“I’ve always backed Theresa May, even after the shambolic conference – and I don’t just mean the speech – because I thought she was our best option to get a sensible Brexit deal and to come out of that period with some kind of unity.

“But this is just the latest in a growing catalogue of issues. Perhaps we are getting to the point when there has to be a leadership change – if it united the cabinet at least that would be a start.”

Speaker of the House John Bercow also made his displeasure known telling MPs: “This institution is bigger than any one party, and, frankly, it is bigger than any one Government. This place, and what we do here, matter very much. We very much depend in this House, this institution, this great place, on conventions, precedent and a sense of respect for the will of the House.”

But the bigger story here is how close this government has now come to paralysis. There are impasses in the Brexit negotiations – despite Mrs May’s honourable attempts to kick start talks – and getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill back in the House and now these questionable tactics to avoid debates.

This is a government that appears to be running scared – and not just from Labour.

Once again it is the instability at the top, as the MP hinted towards, that is causing problems. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel pointed the finger of blame for the Brexit stalemate at Boris Johnson.

It seems the Conservatives are lurching from one embarrassment to the next. And all this comes just as the Opposition appears to be hitting its stride.

Sir Keir Starmer is now starting to land some heavy blows on the government over Brexit. The fact the shadow Brexit secretary and Jeremy Corbyn had talks with EU leaders this week will not have been greeted with pleasure in Downing Street.

Labour is being taken seriously in Europe while the Conservatives keep shooting themselves in the foot.

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