Game over

For this Parliament, the game is over.

Last Friday saw the end of the Commons private members' bill process, until the next crop appear, after the election, probably in September or October. But there will be a difference because the PMB process has been weaponised.

It started last year with the Wharton Bill - Conservative backbencher James Wharton's PMB to hold an EU referendum in 2017.

I say his bill, because he was the sponsor, but the reality is that it was the Conservative leadership's bill, and the top Tory in the Commons' annual ballot for debating time to bring in a bill would have had to use it for this measure, whatever their personal preference. By common consent he did a pretty good job of presenting it. Conservative MPs were whipped to turn out in his support, and his bill cleared the Commons but was blocked in the Lords.

This year, the Conservative Bob Neill was the top Tory in the ballot and within moments was the proud owner of the Wharton Bill II.

But elsewhere, the Lib Dem Andrew George proposed a bill to unwind the Coalition's housing benefit changes, aka "the bedroom tax", while Labour's Clive Efford had a bill to reverse the Coalition's NHS reforms. Suddenly there were three private members' bills with priority for debate, targeting three policy areas that were controversial within the Coalition government.

The Conservatives were seeking to get a referendum bill through when the Lib Dems would not accept it as Coalition policy. Andrew George sought to enlist Labour help to overturn one of the Coalition policies that his party was least happy with, and Labour sought to lure Lib Dem support to undo NHS reforms that they'd never liked much, anyway.

All three bills failed.

The George and Neill bills were frustrated when the Coalition parties couldn't agree money resolutions to fund their provision - the Efford Bill was killed by a massive filibuster in committee, where a group of heavy-metal Conservative backbenchers talked and talked and talked…..*

What we have here is a new way of fighting cross-Coalition battles.

Imagine how PMBs might be used in a future hung parliament. A minority government might see controversial policies being undone. A Coalition with a notional majority might suffer the same fate if some of its MPs went overboard, or one of its member parties got the jitters. An Opposition might seek to lure supporters of one Coalition party to vote against another...

There are, of course, defences. Conservative backbenchers chunter that the George and Efford Bills both had spending implications so great that they should not have been ruled in order as private members' bills. Expect those rules to be more rigorously policed by the party whips in future.

And controversial private members' bills require the support of 100 members to be moved to a vote in the face of a determined filibuster - which means keeping a lot of MPs in the Commons for several Friday sittings (they'd be needed at second reading and report stages, in particular) so there's an element of mutually assured massive inconvenience about fighting proxy wars through this means.

But a new form of manoeuvre has been discovered.

* My favourite moment was Jacob Rees-Mogg's invocation of the Great God Thor, during discussion of the sittings motion, which sets out when the committee should hold its meetings: "The question today is do we spread ourselves at 9.25am on a Tuesday, 10 o'clock on a Tuesday, 9.25am on a Wednesday and at 2pm. Or, should we consider, re-evaluate, be brave, bold and modernising and look to Thursday? Thursday is the great day named in honour of a Norse god, Thor, who is the god of thunder and lightning, but also of oak trees. He is a god we can claim for our own in England as the symbol of our nation and, as it happens, of the Conservative party. A rather wishy-washy oak tree is used for the Conservative party, but none the less, that symbol is associated with a Norse divinity, although not one I believe in. That does not mean that the stories about him are not interesting or relevant to the question of whether 11.30am and 12 o'clock on Thursdays might be not only the best time but the ideal time, the perfect time—that ethereal concept which many of us have been seeking throughout our lives—where time is used to its greatest efficiency. "

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