The Daily Mail reports that Michael Gove, the Government Chief Whip in the Commons, has downgraded the House’s Thursday sittings to a one-line whip for the remainder of the Parliament. This means they will effectively be optional for Tory MPs until Parliament is dissolved at the end of March.
The Mail‘s political reporter doesn’t think much of this development. He writes testily that “politicians, who are paid £67,060 a year, are now expected to attend Parliament for just two-and-a-half days from 2.30pm on Mondays to the end of business on Wednesdays.” The trouble is, that’s not actually the case. Although Monday sittings begin later in the day, it’s not really a half day since the House usually sits until 10:30 pm. So Tory MPs will still be expected to attend three full sitting days each week, and many of them will probably continue to attend on Thursdays, too, since the Commons will still have non-legislative business to do (e.g., questions to Ministers, topical debates).
The rationale for this change is simple: as this Parliament draws to a close, there are fewer Government bills on the agenda, so the Whips don’t need to keep MPs in the chamber to win votes. The Daily Mail sees the lack of legislation as evidence of the Coalition’s weakness, but it would be silly to introduce major bills at this point. Parliament will come to an end no later than March 30 (that’s the day it will automatically dissolve under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, but if the Queen prorogues Parliament ahead of the dissolution as is customary, the Commons and the Lords will stop sitting even sooner), so there isn’t much time to legislate.
Quite frankly, I think this slower approach is preferable to the frantic ‘wash up‘ that used to occur at the end of a Parliament. The spectacle of Government Whips engaging in last-minute horse trading with the Opposition to try to get as many bills onto the statute book as possible was always kind of tawdry, and I doubt it produced high-quality legislation. I’m still not sold on the idea of a fixed-term Parliament, but having an orderly ending is certainly a plus.
Gove’s decision to implement a one-line whip on Thursdays is an exercise in pragmatism, and the Mail would be well advised to find something else to harp on.