Boris Johnson has been backed into a corner, and he is not happy. 20 opposition days per parliamentary session are allocated in the House of Commons to opposition parties, allowing them to set the agenda. While the motions are non-binding, Labour has consistently used these opportunities well – from declaring an environment and climate emergency in 2019 (making the UK parliament the first to do so) to holding a vote on extending free school meals over the holidays last year (forcing the government to show its hand, before later U-turning, and attracting a handful of Tory rebels in the process). The official opposition is preparing to humiliate the Prime Minister again today in much the same way.
On the 14th allotted opposition day, Labour will put forward a motion against the planned cut to Universal Credit and a motion in favour of pupils eligible for free school meals receiving their full value throughout the year including holidays. The government is currently resisting both of these proposals, yet – with Conservative think tanks and MPs backing the first, and Marcus Rashford leading the charge on the second – it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that U-turns are on their way. Ministers may insist that they want people back in work instead of receiving benefits, despite UC being an in-work payment. But the basic truth is that the pandemic is still very much ongoing, and its full economic impact is yet to be felt.
There were reports over the weekend that Rishi Sunak could replace the £20-a-week UC uplift with a one-off £500 payment, which was described as a “terrible policy” by Labour. This is half the increase initially implemented for Covid over a year, and it would not address the post-furlough unemployment spike, as many Tory backbenchers have recognised. Labour has urged them to end the “catalogue of chaos” on free school meals by voting with the opposition. But they have been told by the PM to abstain: embarrassed by its own clearly incorrect positions on these crucial policy matters, the government has returned to the Theresa May approach of ignoring opposition day votes to undermine their authority.
This desperate move by Johnson, emulating a predecessor who led a minority government in contrast to his own 80-seat majority, attempts to avoid difficult calls and stave off Tory rebellions by eroding parliamentary sovereignty. The better solution to the Prime Minister’s awkward situation is simple: acknowledge the reality of this pandemic and our current economic circumstances. Look beyond the end of your nose. Take the decision now that will need to be made later on. Don’t allow the Chancellor, a hawk who has been proved wrong at every juncture in the coronavirus crisis, to call the shots. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.