Why are the Conservatives boycotting opposition day debates?

Opposition days are days allocated in the House of Commons for the discussion of subjects chosen by the opposition parties. They’ve existed since the late 19th century, but no government has treated them with as much disdain as this one. Unwilling to dignify opposition with a response, they’re simply refusing to vote on opposition motions.

A glance through this list of government defeats in the Commons (1945–present) shows that dismissal of the very concept of opposition motions is unprecedented for a government with a working majority.

Why, you might ask, are the Conservatives boycotting opposition day debates?

To stave off revolt

This week the government abstained on two opposition motions: a motion against a planned cut to Universal Credit and a motion saying that families eligible for free school meals should be guaranteed to receive their full value “for the duration of the school year, including during all holidays”.

Explaining the abstention, Boris Johnson claimed that he wanted to protect Conservatives MPs from leftwing cyberbullies. If you recall a Conservative MP in the Commons shouting “Britain first” — the same words used by Jo Cox’s killer as he shot and stabbed the Labour MP — just days after Johnson had mocked the victim’s colleagues and then refused to apologise, you might find the Prime Minister’s reasoning dubious.

Johnson’s own MPs parroted his paternalistic explanation publicly, but in private WhatsApp groups, they didn’t buy it. Reflecting the unease of many Conservative MPs one complained that:

I’m completely fed up with being marched up the hill on deeply unpopular policies and being marched down again.

Another remarked:

It’s increasingly obvious to that No10 doesn’t understand, doesn’t care about the [2019 intake of new] MPs or the places they represent.

In the end, only six Conservative MPs rebelled on these opposition motions. Doubtless this figure would be higher if Johnson hadn’t given them an easy way out.

To smear the opposition

A video produced by Conservative MP Ben Bradley claims that opposition motions “are used by Labour to weaponize emotive issues”. Put more straightforwardly: opposition motions are used by Labour to discuss subjects that the public care about.

Bradley implies that these motions are introduced not for the good of the public, but for the good of the Labour party. The majority of the public support both proposals so, in truth, the two motivations are not mutually exclusive. Certainly these motions help Labour’s cause, but only insofar as they make it clear that Labour are aligned with the public on these issues, while the Conservative government isn’t.

Bradley goes on to claim that, whenever the government announces a policy, “inevitably Labour says this isn’t good enough without explaining what they would do instead.” This is clearly untrue in both of these motions, which propose two concrete solutions. After making this misrepresentation, Bradley proceeds to bemoan Labour “intentionally misrepresenting government policy”.

Conservative MP Ben Everitt went further, bemoaning the “staggering hypocrisy” of the Universal Credit motion, “because it’s actually Labour’s position to abolish Universal Credit altogether”. Labour’s position at the last election was to “immediately end the worst aspects of Universal Credit” and then “develop our replacement system”. To present this as less generous than the government’s policy is, as Bradley would put it, intentional misrepresentation.

This kitchen sink approach to misinformation is no accident. The Wellingborough Conservatives recently advised their members to “openly lie” and “weaponise fake news”, explaining that:

If you make enough dubious claims, fast enough, honest speakers are overwhelmed.

Similarly the leader of Milton Keynes Conservatives, was caught lying in campaign material and proceeded to brag about it. While most Conservatives aren’t stupid enough admit their intent aloud, their tactics speak for themselves.

To put off the task of governing

Last month Rafael Behr wrote incisively on the Prime Minister’s habit of delaying:

Johnson’s technique for dealing with problems is to let them run out of control, building to a point of sufficient crisis that delay is no longer viable. That way the choice becomes perversely easier because there are fewer options left. Wait long enough and there might be only one.

This habit is another reason why the Conservatives are boycotting opposition day debates. Sure, they don’t want to make decisions on the opposition’s terms, but the bigger problem is that they don’t want to make decisions at all. The result of all of this foot-dragging is prolonged uncertainty for the families who rely on Universal Credit and free school meals, as the Conservatives insisted that no decision would be made until the Budget in March.

Because opposition day motions work

Thankfully for these families Labour and its associated campaign groups are really good at effectively lobbying using opposition day debates. Despite Conservative insistence that opposition day debates “don’t change anything”, mere hours after the debate on Universal Credit was held, the government began briefing that the Universal Credit uplift to be retained up until July.

Boycotting opposition days is a desperate move. Sitting on an 80-seat majority, Johnson is behaving like the leader of a minority government, dodging difficult decisions and eroding the parliamentary process through inaction. The solution is simple: acknowledge the reality, change the policy, lead the country. Instead this government lies, delays and wallows in self pity.

Acknowledgements:

  • @AmIRightSir helped me pin down the 19th century origins of opposition days.
  • I paraphrase @politicsofnv’s incandescent tweet about the murder of Jo Cox and the reaction of the Conservative Party.

Two time Emmy award viewer.