This is not the first time that the Government has simply walked away from a vote it didn’t like in the Commons, but this time it could mark a turning point in the way Parliament is operated because the badger cull has such high public salience. There have actually been some 20 cases over the last few years where Government has contested motions tabled by MPs, lost the vote, and then ostentatiously ignored it. This time the vote was overwhelming: 219 in favour and 1 against – obviously the Tory Whips, thinking they couldn’t win the vote, told their MPs to go home – but either way the Government suffered a thumping defeat. Today’s vote was almost a replay of my motion on 13 January that ‘a Commission of Inquiry be set up to investigate the impacts of the welfare reforms on the incidence of poverty’. On that occasion the vote was 125 in favour and just 2 against, but for the last 2 months the Government has studiously done nothing at all to respect the vote.
The truth is both main parties’ establishments have always been hostile to one of the very few democratic breakthroughs in Parliament in the last 50 years. Both parties’ Whips tried to block the formation of the Back-Bench Business Committee (BBDC) in the light of the MPs’ expenses scandal just before the last election, but they were overridden by the strong cross-party feeling in favour of reform. Then the incoming Tory Government tried to marginalise this committee by allocating it business time on Thursdays when most MPs have already departed (because there were no more Government votes). Now, on the rare occasions when the Government is actually defeated when a division is called at the end of one of these BBBC debates, it just blithely disregards the vote. Whether they can get away with it this time, when terminating this harsh and ineffective cull is so popular and the public widely believes that Commons votes should be respected, is another matter.
What needs to be done? If after a full and proper debate the Government loses the vote on non-government business, it should be required to forward the motion for ratification by the Lords, and if it is, then the Government should be required to bring forward proposals within a reasonable period (say 3 months) which implement the original motion. That would work wonders for making the public feel there really was a channel to have their views aired in Parliament and, if agreed, actually implemented. It would also end the farce whereby MPs keep on voting down unpopular and undesirable Government policies, and then nothing at all happens. And it would make the modern ‘professional’ political-insider MP just a bit more responsive to public opinion rather than to the Whips, and that cannot be anything other than a good thing.