Labour will say that Conservative MPs voted against its motion to ban MPs from taking paid consultancy jobs, after the government won tonight’s vote with a slightly reduced majority of 51. The Conservatives will reply that they voted for their own tougher measure to ban paid consultancies, after they passed their amendment – and that Labour didn’t vote against it.
Behind the procedural games, the reality is that Boris Johnson tried to copy Sir Keir Starmer as closely as possible, but without committing himself. Although two of his ministers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Ellis, did their best to pretend that the government amendment was tougher than Labour’s original motion, they know that it is slightly weaker, because it does not force the House of Commons to act within 15 days of the deadline set by both parties: the end of January 2022.
Mr Rees-Mogg’s special subject is parliamentary procedure, and he made full use of his erudition, knowing that few MPs, let alone the general public, would understand the finer points of tonight’s votes.
The leader of the House of Commons put on his most elaborately polite pretence of seeking consensus, praising the contributions made by Labour and even Scottish National Party MPs. He warned the Commons against meddling with standing orders, which say that government business takes precedence. “To give a motion immediate precedence would be both impractical and unnecessary,” he said. “We have listened,” he repeated, and stressed how much he wanted to proceed on a cross-party basis.
This is the same Mr Rees-Mogg who admits he urged the prime minister to proceed on a one-party basis to block the suspension of Owen Paterson, the Tory former cabinet minister, two weeks ago – a decision that triggered one of the most serious crises for the prime minister and the government since the election.
Now he and Mr Johnson have decided to try to hug the opposition close as they try to get out of the hole they dug for themselves. By copying Labour’s plan to ban consultancies – proposed by the independent committee on standards in public life three years ago – they hope to blunt Sir Keir’s attack on them for (as the Labour leader put it at Prime Minister’s Questions) trying to give a “green light to corruption”.
But they do not want to bind themselves to a definite date for actually doing something about it, hence Mr Rees-Mogg’s obfuscation about standing orders. He is quite right that the normal rules of the Commons give precedence to government business – otherwise parliamentary democracy would grind to a halt. But there have been exceptions, as when a majority of the Commons legislated against the government to block a no-deal Brexit in 2019. It is not surprising that Mr Johnson does not want to contemplate that again.
So to give in to the threat in the Labour motion to take control of the Commons timetable would have been a retreat too far. Labour suggested that the standards committee should draw up the rules banning consultancy jobs – that is the committee chaired by Chris Bryant, a Labour MP, though half of its members are independent outsiders who are not MPs. And the Labour motion said that whatever the committee decided should be put to a vote in the Commons within 15 days.
The government amendment left that bit out.
So what the Commons voted for tonight was the Labour plan, but with no hard deadline, and no guaranteed mechanism for putting a detailed proposal drawn up by the independent committee on standards to a vote of MPs. Only four Tory MPs voted for the Labour motion: Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone, Nigel Mills and Dan Poulter.
In other words, the government has promised to clean up politics, but refuses to commit itself in respect of how and when.