Ruth Edwards is the MP for Rushcliffe
Shouting, confusion, allegations of bullying. Last night chaos reigned in the Commons. Anyone watching from the outside must have wondered what on earth was going on. It wasn’t much clearer for those of us in the chamber either, but here is one bit-player’s view from the benches.Labour had tabled an Opposition Day motion that linked a bill to ban fracking to what was supposedly a confidence motion in the Government. If it passed it would have allowed the Labour party to take control of Parliamentary business in Government time. Like many colleagues, I don’t think we should be reneging on our manifesto commitment to lift the moratorium on fracking. Why? Because I think it’s poor energy policy and because I believe that manifesto commitments are there to be kept unless there is no other choice. There are very good reasons we put a moratorium on fracking. There is also significant evidence that fracking would produce very little gas. So why would we focus our time and attention on a policy that is so divisive and causes such anguish to local communities, when there is broad public agreement that we should invest in our North Sea oil and gas industry, scale up renewables, and nuclear? That has always been my argument. Many colleagues have similar views. None of us wanted to vote with Labour last night but some of us did want to abstain. Because whilst we don’t want Labour to have control of the Commons business, we do want the moratorium on fracking reintroduced. All day we were told by the whips that this was not just a strong three-line whip but a confidence vote. Voting against the government or abstaining would result in the whip being removed. That was very clear from the message sent to all Conservative MPs by the Deputy Chief Whip and confirmed by my whip when I messaged him to check. That’s why colleagues were in tears in the division lobbies and their offices. We were being told we had to choose between voting to lose the whip or voting against a manifesto commitment we believed in. For the front bench to allow the Opposition to put their MPs in this position is a special type of incompetence. But the tactic worked. The vast majority of colleagues, even the disillusioned and distressed, were prepared to go through the Government lobby. The chamber filled up for the wind ups, accompanied as always by the buzz of low-level conversation between colleagues. Then the Minister lobbed a verbal hand grenade into the assembled crowd. By announcing at the despatch box that it wasn’t in fact a confidence vote after-all. There was a sharp intake of breath. No one could believe what they had just heard. Surely he had misspoken? Like many colleagues I wanted to be clear about the terms of the vote. So I bobbed up and down, asking him to ‘give way’. That’s the Parliamentary equivalent of putting your hand up in class to ask a question. After repeated efforts and a chorus of support from equally perplexed colleagues, he did so. But was unable to give a clear answer to my question.
That’s when the chaos descended, because we now had no idea about the basis of the vote. MPs gathered in groups asking each other ‘what are you going to do?’In the lobbies the situation was no better. I walked up to the Chief Whip to try and clarify what was going on. She cut me off mid-sentence ‘I don’t have to talk to you, I’ve resigned’. The Deputy came through the lobby reiterating that it was a confidence vote and that the Minister would do a Point of Order to confirm that. So, eventually, we swiped our cards and shuffled back to the chamber. But no Point of Order came. Why is this even important? Because if you want to maintain trust and a good working relationship with your Parliamentary party, you can’t lie to your MPs about the terms on which they are voting. I believe the whips office did act in good faith. I saw their faces as the Minister announced that it wasn’t a confidence vote. One of them looked like she wanted to clobber him with the mace. To be fair to the Minister I have it on good authority that he was relaying a message which had just come in from Number 10. This morning we are being asked to believe it was a misunderstanding caused by a junior official. Anyone who believes that must be smoking something rather exotic.
The trust between the Parliamentary Party and the Prime Minister no longer exists. You can only pull a stunt like that once. And you can’t work as a team if the foot soldiers are treated with contempt by the general.On Monday night the Prime Minister stood in front of the One Nation Caucus and promised to improve the communication between Number 10 and the party. Last night showed how deeply disingenuous that commitment was. I made my views known to Sir Graham Brady earlier this week. The Prime Minister has shown breath-taking economic and political incompetence during her short tenure in office. It is not responsible for the party to allow her to remain in power. Not when her actions can have such detrimental consequences for our constituents. So I add my small voice to the groundswell of others. Step aside, go, and let someone who is up to the task take on the great privilege and responsibility of leading our great country and party.