For this week’s Opposition Day debate, Labour selected the issues facing East Coast mainline franchise. Having been returned to public ownership for the third time in ten years, the franchise has been a reliable thorn in the side of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who faces a constant diatribe from the opposition benches over his support of privatisation.
Recently, the Tories have consistently abstained from voting on Opposition Day debates, leaving Labour to chatter among themselves and hold symbolic votes, meaning they’re unable to hold Conservative MPs to account for their recorded votes.
This week however, Labour came up with the cunning ruse of moving to censure Grayling, calling for his Ministerial salary to be reduced by £2,400, the cost of a season ticket to London from his Surrey constituency. Labour claimed that such censure motions have traditionally been treated as a “matter of confidence” in a minister, meaning the Government would need to defeat the motion in order to keep the Transport Secretary in post.
This meant the Government had no choice but to show up and vote on themotion. In doing so, it forced 304 MPs (including the DUP) to oppose criticism of Chris Grayling’s handling of the East Coast mainline debacle, which Labour will remind them of as often as they please. Labour have therefore been able to creatively dictate engagement on their terms, forcing the Government to take a public stance on Opposition priorities that they have largely managed to avoid doing.
This episode brings into stark relief the limitations of governing, and especially governing as a minority. A resourceful opposition can often bring pressure to bear and make full use of the tools at their disposal. Has Corbyn now conjured up with a clever way to force the Government to engage on the issues that matter to his Labour Party? It looks like he has. In which case we should expect to see this used again and again. Next time, they’d be wise to pick an issue on which the DUP agree with Labour though. This would test the mettle of theconfidence and supply arrangement between the Tories and the DUP.
Interestingly, this Opposition tactic was last deployed by the current Prime Minister when she was Shadow Transport Secretary in 2001. Is she now getting a taste of her own medicine?