Wednesday 14 December 2011

Half a cheer for the Lib Dems

There is a long-standing convention in the UK that all members of the Government should support the government’s position on all issues, and should resign if they are unable to do so.  Backbenchers are not bound by this convention, but the job of the whips is to try and ensure that they vote as if they were as often as possible.
It’s the sort of convention that governments like, and when all ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister, who can dispose of those who dare to disagree, it’s a powerful tool for motivating the ‘payroll vote’ to support government policy. 
It’s a convention, though, which is better suited to one-party governments than to coalitions, and the fact that it has been so rarely challenged has as much to do with the unusualness of coalitions as anything else.  And it’s a convention which has been adopted – unthinkingly as far as I can see – by the National Assembly in Cardiff as well.
I can understand why coalition partners would be expected to support the government position on all matters covered in the formal coalition agreement, but I cannot understand why the convention should apply to all decisions taken by the government, even if those decisions are both outside the formal agreement and contrary to the stated policy of one of the coalition partners.  I certainly did not understand why the junior partners in One Wales found it necessary never to disagree in the Senedd with anything that the senior partners said or did.
In that context, the decision of the Lib Dems in London to abstain on a motion welcoming Cameron’s removal of the UK from the negotiating table in the EU is a very welcome challenge to the convention.  I hope that we will see more of them.
So why only half a cheer?  Because I’m completely convinced that if the same thing had been done by a party other than the Lib Dems, then the Lib Dems would have been the first to condemn such an outrageous breach of convention.  Consistency of argument has never been one of their strong points.  But having put down a marker in this way, I’d be delighted to see them showing a bit more consistency from here on in.

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