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Are Liberal Democrat MPs now free to abstain if Ed Miliband tables a no-confidence vote in the Government?

By Paul Goodman
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I was under the misapprehension that, since this is a Coalition Government, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats take the same whip.

This misunderstanding was buttressed by the Number 10 website, which lists Alistair Carmichael as a Deputy Chief Whip (and number three in the Whips' Office).

I should of course have grasped that, as the Daily Mail explains this morning in relation to the Commons vote later today on Jeremy Hunt -

"Senior Lib Dems said they are not bound by the usual conventions of collective responsibility since the motion has been proposed by the opposition rather than the government".

Do you see?  If the motion in question is an Opposition one, then Liberal Democrat MPs are free to vote for it, and never mind what their Coalition partners think.  It presumably follows that in the same circumstances Conservative MPs have the identical liberty.

Which means that Opposition Day debates, for example, can't be whipped.  The principle can be extended.  So if Chris Huhne's affairs become subject to a vote for some reason, Tory MPs can all be asked to abstain by David Cameron.

Or if Ed Miliband tables a motion of no confidence in the Government, Nick Clegg can give the very same instruction to his MPs (as indeed he is doing over the Hunt vote).

I concede that I may still not have understood this exciting new Liberal Democrat doctrine of how Government voting works, since the Guardian explains:

"The Lib Dems said they would not be backing the Labour motion because it was for Cameron alone to decide whether to refer someone to Allan."

Do you understand? What's vital may not be which party or MPs table a motion, as the Mail claims, but that the Prime Minister took the decision about Mr Hunt alone.

In which case Ministers had better be very careful not to take any decisions alone.  These presumably include quasi-judicial ones of the kind the Culture Secretary was asked to make over the BSkyB bid.

So if Mr Hunt had not replaced Vince Cable in undertaking that task, Conservative MPs would presumably have been at liberty to oppose the latter's decision in the event of a Commons vote.

The Deputy Prime Minister clearly feels he was bounced by David Cameron's swift decision, in the wake of Mr Hunt's appearance before Leveson, not to refer the Culture Secretary to his adviser on the Ministerial Code.

Since the Prime Minister was widely expected to review his original decision not to refer Mr Hunt in the immediate wake of the latter's Leveson evidence, can I ask why Mr Clegg didn't agree with Mr Cameron in advance how to proceed?

Why didn't his office say to Mr Cameron's: "If you don't mind, we'd like a word after Hunt gives his oral evidence to discuss what should happen next."

Perhaps it did.  Who knows?  I expect that the Government - sorry, the Conservative Party - will win the Hunt vote, but the bracing new Liberal Democrat doctrine of when a government vote is or isn't a government vote doesn't bode well for the future of the Coalition.


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