Everyone’s waiting for something to happen about Greece. If you think the suspense is bad, imagine what it’s like if you have a pan-European politics column to fill and you have undertaken a public commitment not to fill it with speculation, gossip, or bullshit that you can’t substantiate with data. At the moment, there is literally nothing but unsubstantiated speculation, gossip, and bullshit going.
So did anything happen in the UK this week? A few weeks ago Adam Bienkov blogged that
Hoping for Tory self-destruction is a losing game
I disagree; as I pointed out here, the record shows the coalition was a lot like a Tory government with a 76 majority. It has been replaced by one with an 11 majority. This changes a lot of things.
For a start, there was this. When David Cameron: A Soap Opera hits our screens, as it surely should do, the title will be The One Where They Abstained On Their Own Division. In case you missed it, the Tories tried to implement their daft idea of “English votes for English laws” through the back door, by changing the House of Commons rules rather than by passing proper legislation that would need a debate, committee scrutiny, a trip to the Lords, etc.
Unfortunately, Lib Dem MP from the Orkneys Alistair Carmichael was fly to this, and used the fact they wanted to do it through the parliamentary rulebook to beat it. It would only take one MP objecting to trigger a full debate, and Carmichael objected. At the end of the debate, the Tories unexpectedly abstained, therefore losing the division by 289 votes. This is obviously a crazy-arse thing to happen, and the simplest explanation was that they realised late in the day that at least six of their votes couldn’t be counted on and therefore decided to fold rather than lose a proper division.
That turned out to be true. In fact, no fewer than 20 Tories were unconvinced, and the 8 DUP members were planning to vote with Labour, the Liberals, and the SNP. For their part, the opposition seems to have managed to revive the long-standing cooperation between Labour and SNP whips very quickly despite all the bitterness at the elections, so much so that they could throw the opposition vote around like a Eurofighter while the government side fell over in a heap.
A major reason for some of the Tories’ discontent was simply that they objected to altering the constitution in such a secretive and amateurish fashion. But the very fact the Tory leadership wanted to do it this way is a tell; if you were confident you had the votes to do it properly, you wouldn’t faff around with the Commons rules, you’d put forward a bill. The only reason to dick around like this is if you don’t believe you have the votes.
Something else which happened this week: Tories against fox hunting. Yes, really. Another reason why they tried the EVEL caper was that they wanted to call a vote on a statutory instrument, an administrative change rather than legislation, that would basically gut the Hunting Act in England and Wales. This would be much easier to achieve without the Scots. So, That Time We Abstained On Our Own Division was meant to be the prequel to That Time We Cared About Fox Hunting, Again.
But again, the caper is the tell. If they believed they had the votes, they could just..you know..do it. The fact they are trying all sorts of get-out-of-games notes is evidence they don’t believe in the stability of their internal coalition. And it turns out that there are at least 20 waverers, including a government minister, Tracey Crouch MP. So, if you think a one-third chance of voting no is the cut-off to be considered a waverer, that’s easily enough to wipe out the majority in expected-value terms. What exactly happens on Wednesday night is down to the SNP, who are blowing hot and cold, trying to decide between not getting involved in non-Scottish issues and punching the Tories on an issue their supporters are furious about.
And then there’s the daft GP appointments thing.
So, we’ve learned that a majority of 11 – i.e. a target of flipping six votes – is just as hairy as it was in the 90s. We’ve also learned that Harriet Harman is a pretty effective opposition driver, and that Labour-SNP and Labour-Liberal whipping cooperation is apparently unaffected by either the election or the coalition. These are important facts.
However, there’s the Budget. Every last Tory will surely, surely be on deck to make sure every bit of it gets through, which may explain why Labour don’t seem to be planning to oppose much of it. You’ve got to pick your battles, of course. But the constellation of measures Osborne announced seems likely to have really strange consequences for housing in particular, and it frankly worries me.
There’s the drastically tighter bennies cap. There’s the tax credits cut. There’s the whole complicated gasworks of trying to force housing associations to sell, and then extract money from councils to compensate them. There’s the decision to order – how? – the HAs to cut rents, which might accidentally add £60bn to the national debt. And there’s the decision to take the BTLers’ goodies away. Usually I’d be delighted at the suggestion Fergus Wilson might lose a lucrative tax break, but it does look like a lot of them might end up forced sellers. Surely the Tories can’t be hoping for a price crash? Yes, the public likes “caps”, but they will like the catastrophic reorganisation of the housing economy less.
Joe Halewood has a rundown – I seem to recall Harman in particular has repeatedly talked about discretionary housing payments (DHPs) as if they would be enough to solve the problem. Those are going up, a bit. Does she believe this will work?
The tactical question here is how much of this stuff is achievable through the Finance Bill or executively, and how much will need primary legislation. As we’ve seen, anything ambitious that needs pukka legislation is exposed to picking off the 6 Tories nearest the median on that issue, and of course to rejectionism. Much of it is embodied in a primary bill, but perhaps the thinking is that the Scottish MPs won’t be available? Anyway, here’s some useful advice.