Yesterday brought yet another element of chaos to our government. The Labour Party, spotting a chance to be on the right, and popular, side of an argument, and a chance to embarrass the government, put down an Opposition Day Motion on fracking. The resulting chaos was unprecedented, and the veteran MP for Broxbourne had “had enough”
Yesterday’s Parliamentary debate was ostensibly about fracking for shale gas, but in reality it was about confidence in the government. As Labour had intended, it put great pressure on the loyalty of increasingly distressed Conservative MPs.
Conservative suspicion of fracking
Fracking involves drilling shafts into the ground, to inject chemicals under pressure, which fractures layers of rock which contain shale gas, which is then released and brought to the surface. There have been concerns about pollution of water supplies and earthquakes. In the face of public hostility, the 2019 Conservative manifesto said that the party would not support the extraction of shale gas “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”. The ban remains in place.
Reversing the Tory policy
In the, now mainly abandoned, “mini budget”, the government had announced that they were reversing the ban on fracking for gas. In announcing the removal of the ban, the government did not explain how the evidence had changed, but said that fracking would only be allowed in places where there was local support, with no indication of how that support would be assessed.
There is no reason to believe that fracking could reduce gas prices, and there is debate about how muchgas is there, and whether it could make any real difference to our energy independence in the near future. Furthermore, fracking is extremely unpopular in rural areas with Conservative MPs. So, Labour put down a motion to force Conservative MPs to either support a deeply unpopular policy, or to vote against the government.
A confidence vote
On the morning before the debate, the government announced that the vote would be treated as a confidence vote, meaning that a vote against would lead to party discipline, normally withdrawing of the Whip. This means that any Conservative MP voting against the government would cease to be a member of the Parliamentary Party, and unable to stand as a Conservative candidate in future elections.
Not a confidence vote
However, closing the debate for the government, climate minister Graham Stuart said,
“Quite clearly, this is not a confidence vote—[Interruption.] Obviously, this is not a confidence vote”.
It appears that not all MPs were present to hear this, and there were unprecedented scuffles in the voting lobbies. Labour shadow minister Anna McMorrin tweeted that she witnessed one Conservative MP “in tears” in the lobby after the vote. The Speaker has launched an investigation.
A resigning matter?
Following the vote, there were widespread rumours that the government Chief Whip, and perhaps her deputy, who are responsible for enforcing party discipline, and ensuring that their MPs support the government, had resigned. Later these rumours were denied, and they appear to be still in post.
A confidence vote after all
At 1.30 the following morning, the government announced that it had, after all, been a vote of confidence.
How did our MPs vote?
Fracking is not a big issue in the East of England. Most of the areas thought to have accessible gas reserves are in the North and South East. This made it easier for our Conservative MPs to support the government, without any major backlash from constituents. Accordingly, most of them toed the party line and voted in favour of removing the ban. None voted with Labour to keep the ban, but four did not vote. It is not clear whether they were present or not. They were:
- Nadine Dorries – Mid Bedfordshire
- Vicky Ford – Chelmsford
- Priti Patel – Witham
- John Whittingdale – Maldon
The first to break ranks
This morning the first of our region’s Conservative MPs broke ranks to join the 11 who had called for Liz Truss to step down. Veteran Conservative backbencher, and MP for Broxbourne, Sir Charles Walker said on Radio 4:
“I think there is no coming back from this…This is an absolute disgrace.. utterly appalling.. I hope all those people who put Liz Truss in Number 10, I hope it was worth it for the Ministerial Red Box, I hope it was worth it to sit round the Cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary. I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it is in the national interest, but because it is in their own personal interest to achieve Ministerial position.”
It remains to be seen what impact yesterday’s chaos will have on the government’s survival, and what action they might take against individual MPs, if they are in a position to take any.