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The difficulties of governing when stroppy backbenchers hold sway

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Commentary giving a historical perspective on our minority government

Post-election financial analysis of the day: Hope remains business rates reforms will be revived

Post-election political analysis of the day: Javid remains at DCLG in the year’s least significant reshuffle

Respite from the election of the day: Andrew Burns: We need regional banks to drive local growth

A government with no reliable Commons majority opens up all manner of possibilities for MPs with axes to grind across parties, and so it may prove with Theresa May’s administration now.

While neither the Democratic Unionist Party nor the Scottish Tories particularly care about English and Welsh local government, there will be deals to be done and trade-offs made in a house where every vote counts: “you vote for our devolution deal, we’ll vote for your sackful of cash for new orange sashes and bowler hats”, that kind of thing.

To see how this sort of parliament – very different from the coalition or a conventional party majority – might work, we must return to the night of 28 March 1979, when Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, a minority government for a couple of years, fell by a single vote.

There had been serious discussions about whether to bring dying Labour MP Sir Alfred Broughton to parliament in an ambulance – his vote would be counted even if he stayed inside it so long as it was on the parliamentary precincts.

Mr Callaghan decided against this unseemly rite, his government consequently fell and Sir Alfred died peacefully a few days later.

In the ‘you scratch my back’ atmosphere, the Ulster Unionist Party tried and failed to get a gas pipeline built from the mainland in return for its votes, and Irish nationalist Frank Maguire famously made a rare Westminster appearance to “abstain in person”.

There had previously been parliamentary games such as opposition MPs announcing their departure for the night, hiding nearby, then returning to ambush a diminished group of Labour MPs in votes.

Policy coups were also possible. Labour MPs Audrey Wise and Jeff Rooker (who 25 years later was briefly housing and planning minister) proposed index linking income tax brackets so they rose with the then rampant inflation.

This secured the support of the Labour left from conviction and the Conservatives from mischief and a rare amendment to a Budget was carried.

Guile, bluff, threats and procedural footwork were all involved – the frequent all night sittings are commonly believed to have contributed to a number of MPs’ premature deaths.

Mr Callaghan, and Harold Wilson before him, survived though in government for four and a half years despite by-election losses and defections ending their majority.

Whether Ms May’s whips prove as wily and effective as their counterparts of 40 years ago remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, stroppy backbenchers on all sides will be weighing the odds or pushing pet projects and stopping pet hates.

LGC last week reported how Christchurch MP Christopher Chope had contributed to the scuppering - temporarily at least - of plans for two unitary councils in Dorset before the general election. Similarly, a host of MPs across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire thwarted the two counties’ mayoral devolution deal the previous year, most probably permanently. But this was all in a period in which the government had a workable parliamentary majority: minority government offers far more scope for the objections of a small number of MPs to prevent devolution deals or restructuring.

Although former Civil Service head Lord Kerslake (Crossbench) told LGC last week he believed that the urgency of social care funding reform meant it had to go ahead, it is hard to envisage how the parliamentary arithmetic will stack up to bring it about. A Labour party expecting another general election has an incentive to do the populist thing by rejecting change rather than face up to the sort of difficult decisions that will anger a portion of the electorate and can be put off for another day.

It was reported at the weekend that the DUP would prioritise protecting pensioners (English pensioners?) as one of its conditions for supporting the Tories on a “confidence and supply basis”.

Meanwhile, LGC reported today how all eyes will be on the Queen’s Speech to see whether full localisation of business rates really is going to go ahead. However, any non-revival of the previously-published Local Government Finance Bill could be more the result of a government reprioritising in light of its evapourated majority than there being widespread disquiet about the measure across Parliament.

The likelihood of a period of parliamentary deadlock may inevitably lead Ms May to feel that she should have made more of her previous majority. Inertia is set to win out above radicalism. 


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