21 November 2018

Last-minute concessions have become a feature of this parliament. Alice Lilly argues that the Government’s whole legislative programme is vulnerable, and lays out the future battle lines.

Tactical concessions are inevitable under a minority government. To avoid defeat on the Finance Bill, the Government announced on Monday that it would release Brexit economic impact assessments ahead of Parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’. It also accepted a number of Labour amendments to the bill after the DUP said they would not stick to their confidence and supply agreement.

Earlier this month, the Government brought forward a cut in the maximum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals, following the resignation of Sports Minister Tracey Crouch and subsequent campaigning in parliament on the issue.

So far, the Government’s approach of making last-minute climb-downs has been largely successful in allowing it to avoid embarrassing defeats. Since the 2017 General Election it has only been defeated twice in the Commons – one each on the Withdrawal Bill and the Trade Bill, both pieces of Brexit legislation.

The politics of Brexit will not be confined to votes on Brexit bills

The DUP’s insistence that it voted with Labour on the Finance Bill amendment – and abstained on others – to “send a message” about the Brexit deal reveals the other problem the Government faces: MPs setting their sights on other parts of its legislative programme.

The Government has three Brexit bills currently before the Commons – on agriculture, fisheries, and on healthcare arrangements with the EU.  It will need to keep a close eye on these, not least as the DUP have previously abstained on votes on the Agriculture Bill. The Finance Bill has yet to complete its passage through the Commons and may yet see further tight votes or Government concessions, particularly if the DUP continues to abstain.

Government also has the Offensive Weapons Bill before the Commons. The progress of the bill has been delayed by the Government, ostensibly for scheduling reasons. But some have speculated that delays were caused by Government fear of defeat on an amendment to the bill – though others suggested that the amendment, while not directly about Brexit, was being used as a show of strength by Conservative and DUP backbenchers eager to send a message.  

The Government is likely to have to continue with its strategy of making concessions where it can – or make use of other tools, such as delaying bills or managing expectations around certain votes.

How long can the Government’s current strategy last?

Ministers may well find that their legislative agenda is shaped by the desire of different groups to put pressure on the Government regarding Brexit. 

While the Government’s willingness to make concessions may stem from a genuine recognition of the need to change tack, it is also born out of a desire to avoid the loss of political capital that defeats bring – and to save it for the big battles.

The meaningful vote will be a key test, but the Government will also have to continue to keep an eye on its other bills, both Brexit and non-Brexit. The Government’s whips face a long few weeks.