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Stewart Jackson MP: Pragmatism and consensus is the lifeblood of this Coalition - but do Conservatives really want Liberal Democrat activists to have a veto even on matters of conscience?

Jackson stewart Stewart Jackson is MP for Peterborough and served in the Opposition Whips Office in 2007/8.

Goodness knows, it's tough being a supporter of the Coalition Government and a Conservative MP at the moment, whether you're a backbencher, a Minister or like me, part of the euphemistically-named "payroll vote" as a PPS.

It's not just the normal political cycle, as tough decisions need to be made and vested interests are challenged, which brings unpopularity from the wider electorate and tough questions from your own constituents and party activists - but it's the contrived fractiousness of our Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats especially in the run up to conference season, which inevitably stretches the bonds of loyalty and circumspection amongst the vast bulk of our Parliamentary Party.

We don't mind being traduced as "extreme", "backward looking", "right wing", "xenophobic" or any number of choice epithets by our erstwhile Lib Dem friends, because we have our eyes on the big prizes - deficit reduction and desperately needed reforms in education, health and welfare - even if we have had to sideline issues that are dear to our hearts, for the common good of the country: A British Bill of Rights, repatriating powers from the European Union, inheritance tax cuts, support for the family in the tax system, amongst other policies upon which we were all elected in May 2010.

We don't mind our Lib Dem Parliamentary colleagues developing the shtick for the media that they have "saved the UK from the Tory Party."

If we Conservatives were on a 10% poll rating, maybe we'd do the same?

We even go onto the airwaves and into bat locally and nationally for policies which are morally and politically right and in our country's long term best interests but are fearsome in their contentious nature and propensity to evoke vote-losing controversy - High speed rail, planning reforms and defence cuts, to name but three.

Most of my colleagues are instinctively loyal and resilient to the vicissitudes that come our way, much to the relief of the hard-pressed Whips.

Traditionally, the balance between the role of a Member of Parliament as a delegate and citizen legislator and also a supporter of the Executive has been one which is complex and fraught with potential for conflict, not least in this Parliament, in which Conservative MPs have rebelled more frequently than ever before.

However, a basic tenet of an individual MP's role as an independent voice, acting on behalf of his constituents, which is well understood and hitherto respected, is the Parliamentary and constitutional convention of a free vote, on matters of conscience, outside the main legislative or policy programme of the administration.

I remember the debates around the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill in 2008, which dealt with incredibly emotive and complex issues like abortion time limits and stem cell research, were the more erudite, informed and civilised in the House of Commons, by the very fact that there was no partisan whip applied to the proceedings. The quality of the debate and the courtesy shown to people with sincere beliefs (even if one totally disagreed with them) showed the House of Commons in its best light.

So what are we to make of the letter sent to all Conservative MPs on Friday last week from the Public Health Minister Anne Milton MP, pointedly advising colleagues of the voting intentions of the Health Front Bench in respect of the business this week? We know that the letter for many of my colleagues will be seen as a de facto whip to support the Front Bench line.

Anne has my sympathy - she is certainly a caring, conscientious and very capable Minister with real world experience of her brief but she has undoubtedly been placed in a very difficult position during the whole of the extended tussle over many months over the abortion counselling amendments to be moved to the Health and Social Care Bill by Nadine Dorries MP and Frank Field MP, between the Department of Health, 10 Downing Street and the Liberal Democrats.

For what its worth, I consider Nadine has shown great fortitude and personal courage in pursuing a campaign which she believes passionately in, albeit proposing in my opinion a modest and unexceptional measure but having been the subject - outside of Parliament, I hasten to add - of a deluge of vulgar and vitriolic personal abuse and I will back her amendment this week. In so doing, I will be reflecting the fact that 78% of the public and 92% of Conservative MPs agree with the principle of non compulsory, free and independent pre abortion counselling.

However, even if I completely disagreed with her, I would still be wondering: Has the letter from the Health team crossed the Rubicon?

If we are to believe the weekend media (and I don’t always), it was the intervention of the defeated Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris (not even a Parliamentarian) with the Deputy Prime Minister, with allegedly an implied threat that the Lib Dems would potentially veto the entire Health and Social Care Bill - robustly passed on to the Prime Minister no doubt - which resulted in Ministers resiling from earlier commitments to support Nadine`s amendments or at least one very similar.

The fundamental question is this: Is it right that Lib Dem activists now seemingly enjoy a veto not just on legislation but even on matters of social conscience, when subject to a Parliamentary vote, in the name of realpolitik?

What if the boot were on the other foot? What if a future majority Conservative administration advised its backbenchers by letter that the Front Bench team would be voting to scrap civil partnerships, abolish publicly funded stem cell research and to reduce the abortion time limit to 12 weeks?

There would most likely be outraged and rightly so.

Last but certainly not least, what do our constituents think? Those who write intelligent, well argued and very personal letters on matters of conscience reasonably expect us to think long and hard about these most important moral conundrums we face from time to time and to cast our votes accordingly. Would they not be dismayed if they thought such conscience issues would be subject henceforth to the party whip and not our own individual best judgement?

Like the vast bulk of my colleagues, I want this government to succeed and for our country to prosper. Part of that renaissance will surely be in the standing and integrity of Parliament.

Free votes are a bulwark of our traditional Parliamentary sovereignty and a check on the power of the Executive, whichever party is in power.

We disregard these constitutional proprieties at our peril.


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