Theory and practice

It might appear that little stands in the way of the government doing precisely what it wants (or, perhaps more precisely, what the Prime Minister with the backing of the Cabinet wants). But the picture is more subtle than that. There is, indeed, an expectation that a government having won a mandate at a general election, with a majority in the House of Commons, will be able to get its business through. However, in practice this depends on a number of factors. A government must retain the support of its backbenchers; and, as we shall see, it is not enough to issue orders; persuasion is often needed. Public and media opinion also needs to be benign - or, at least, not so critical as to give government backbenchers cold feet.

In addition, all governments are aware of the fact that, perhaps not too long distant, they may be on the opposition benches. In the heady days after a big election victory, or with the insulation of a large parliamentary majority, this recollection may be sometimes less vivid, but it underpins any government’s need to maintain a working relationship with the opposition, and especially with the largest opposition party (‘the Official Opposition’). New MPs who have known only the government benches may want to press on regardless, but their enthusiasm tends to be tempered by longer- serving MPs who can remember all too many occasions when in opposition they won the arguments but lost the votes.

This working relationship with the opposition means, in House terms, general agreement on the arrangement and timing of business, and accord on less contentious matters such as the dates of parliamentary recesses, normally through ‘the usual channels’ (see page 82). An effective working relationship may also colour the relationships between the parties on much more significant matters, such as a measure of agreement on how to approach a firefighters’ strike, or the possible imposition of sanctions against a foreign country.

The opposition, too, has a considerable interest in maintaining this working relationship. The traditional statement that the opposition’s power is one of delay is now out of date, given the routine programming of government bills (see page 178). However, cooperation with the government in the arrangement of business will give the opposition the chance to express (and sometimes secure) priorities for debate, and to trade time and tactics, perhaps along the lines of ‘no division on second reading of bill X and only half a day on its report stage’, but in return ‘an extra day on the report stage of bill Y’. The opposition gets the extra day on bill Y, which it sees as more important; the government saves some time on bill X and also knows that it can slacken the voting requirements for its MPs on the second reading of that bill.

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