Today the House of Lords amended a bill to delay the vote on the boundary changes until 2018 (though, of course, the Commons has yet to have its say), defeating the government in the process. Nothing particularly interesting about that you might think – it’s the 60th defeat for the government in the Lords since the coalition began – but this time, the government held a free vote on its own policy. No Liberal Democrat, not even ministers, voted for the government and many voted against (ministers included) and can expect no retribution. Collective cabinet responsibility had gone into abeyance on that policy. We saw hints of this late last year when the Liberal Democrats issued a separate ministerial statement with different policies to those of the government*. Another issue where collective Cabinet responsibility has fallen to the wayside.
This isn’t a post about the decline of good constitutional conventions (though one of those would probably be useful too), because this has happened before. OK, you have to go back quite a bit – 1932 to be precise – but it has! Unsurprisingly, the Liberals voted against the coalition government of National Liberals, Conservatives and National Labourites on the issue of tariffs. Other, intra-party, examples exist such as on implementing the 1975 EEC referendum when a minister who had been allowed to campaign against the prime minister’s position in the referendum spoke against government policy in the Commons (and was promptly sacked) and 1977 on a bill to begin direct elections to the European Assembly (again, free vote in both Houses for ministers too). And, of course, since the coalition in 2010, many ministers have voiced their disagreements on policy publicly, but this is the first time the issues haven’t been sorted out before it got to a vote in parliament.
Coalition governments are almost expected to cause tensions that put a strain on constitutional and parliamentary conventions. And I can see some advantages in a more open and transparent style of governance where disagreements are worked through in public. But I’d still prefer it if they came out with a coherent policy at the end of those discussions rather than this mess.