Today’s big political news has just broken – that the government has been defeated in the vote for the first of two Lib Dem motions, which make up our opposition day debate. The motion called for an equal right of residence to be offered to all Gurkhas, rather than the unfair cut-off for those whose service ended pre-1997 which the government was doing all it could to preserve. I should firstly say a big congratulations to Chris Huhne, who opened the debate powerfully, and fended off a number of pathetically twatty interventions from the Labour benches with ease.
What is amazing about this is not the vote itself, so much as the fact that the government allowed itself to lose. Governments really don’t like to lose votes. Even on harmless things like David Heath’s Private Members’ Bill on Fuel Poverty, they would rather defeat good ideas, and then implement them later, perhaps in watered down form, as part of a wider piece of legislation. It completely undermines the way parliament and our democracy is supposed to work, but there you are.
So it was that before the debate, on the Daily Politics PMQs coverage, Nick Robinson sagely told us that it wasn’t a government defeat we should be watching for, but how much the government had to give away in order to keep its backbenchers on side. Look out, he advised us, for little slips of paper being passed to the minister towards the end of the debate if the whips don’t think they can win the vote as things stand, thus prompting further concessions.
As it happens, though, the Labour party is in such a state of complete incompetence/powerlessness that its whips clearly weren’t able to guage support sufficiently accurately. Perhaps they simply don’t have enough leverage over backbenchers who all expect to be out of a job soon anyway. In any case, the government, in not announcing a U-turn or something, has allowed itself to be humiliated. Not only that, but on an issue that has attracted an awful lot of public anger; Andrew Neil and Anita Anand said on today’s Daily Politics that they’d never seen such a large and unanimous email response on a subject before.
The other notable thing about this is the photo opportunity that it produced outside the House of Commons, where protesters were making their own opinions on the subject clear this afternoon. There, sandwiching Joanna Lumley, admittedly, were Nick Clegg and David Cameron, side by side. Some will inevitably read a lot, probably too much, into the body language of the two, and whether they looked to be getting on well. Personally, I think they were both genuinely happy to see the typical workings of parliament, where the government simply stifles the ability of MPs to act as the voice of the nation on such straightforward issues as this, subverted for once.