Around three months ago I was talking to a back bench Conservative MP about what life was like being in a coalition*. Though the MP was generally supportive of the deal that was made with the Lib Dems – and the Government’s policy agenda – he had one major criticism. The Government was overly stressed about maintaining parliamentary discipline. He observed that even though the Coalition has a healthy majority of 70 odd the Whips were worried about almost every vote. An irritating aspect of this is that all backbenchers had to be in touching distance of Parliament more times than they needed to be. The more dangerous aspect he observed was that many foot soldiers were beginning to feel like neutered parliamentarians. No-one is allowed to place amendments, even if it is line with the spirit of the Bill. Everything has to go through the House of Commons in exactly the same form as has been signed off by the ‘quad’. To add insult to injury there were occasions when the Government agreed to an amendment proposed by the House of Lords after the whips had rejected something similar from Conservative MPs in the Commons. His belief was that everyone would benefit if backbenchers were allowed carry forward sensible amendments that added to the thrust of what was trying to be achieved.
It is understandable that, after what can sometimes be tricky internal negotiations between the two coalition partners, the Government doesn’t want to compromise any agreement. It is also possible that if Tory MPs started adapting legislation then Lib Dem MPs would want the same privilege. Both sides would want to ensure that Bills are not being “Conservat-ised” or “Lib Dem-ised” by the back door. Maybe there should be a joint committee of Lib Dem and Conservative MPs, or a convention that amendments will only be considered if they are jointly sponsored by both Coalition partners?
The problem for the Whips is that they are stuck in the middle between Government’s desire to enforce executive agreements and MP’s desire to have a role in scrutinising legislation. If a balance cannot be found then their is a risk that it will become the norm for backbenchers to grumble in unison about their masters.
*The conversation was conducted under the Chatham House rule