Lindsay Hoyle in the house of Commons
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said it was important for the Commons to be able to consider ‘the widest possible range of options’ given the strength of feeling among MPs © UK parliament/AFP via Getty Images

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Good morning. Labour avoided what would have been another damaging, potentially larger rebellion over the party’s position on the Israel-Hamas war — thanks to an unprecedented move by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. An explanation about what happened and why Scottish National party and Conservative MPs are angry about it.

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Expressway to chaos

When the government of the day has a parliamentary majority, opposition parties cannot control the rest of parliament’s business. So opposition day debates are an opportunity for them to raise issues for debate on their own terms in parliament.

These votes are solely expressive. They can’t change legislation or government policy, though of course people can and do make moral and political judgments about political parties based on how they vote or if they choose not to in opposition day debates.

Now when the government puts forward its own legislation, any relevant amendments are voted on and then the government’s legislation or motion or whatever is voted on.

Because opposition day debates are designed to give the opposition parties their day in the limelight, they have a slightly different order of business: the House of Commons votes on the original opposition motion first and then on the amendments.

This is designed to ensure that the opposition gets a vote on its motion on its own terms. Often that is it, because a lot of the time the ruling government just finds it easier to condescendingly ignore whatever the motion is. (This is also generally true of the largest opposition party and the smaller parties’ opposition day debates: the “official” opposition party tends to ignore the minor parties’ days unless they want to join in with embarrassing the government.)

Sometimes the government of the day may feel it can’t just ignore the vote — maybe many of their backbenchers want to signal some kind of government response, maybe they are trying to game some of the voting record website to make their record on an issue look better than it is. In that case it will propose an amendment to the motion.

But because the opposition’s motion goes first, whichever opposition party is having their day in the limelight is guaranteed — or ought to be — a rare vote that is on their terms.

Now, the difficulty here is that as originally envisaged opposition debates assume a pretty binary political set-up, in which you have a government and an opposition who compete for votes with each other, and where there is a fairly simple yes/no divide.

Opposition day debates in which you have a third party that competes for votes with both parties and has different interests to both of them are already tricky enough. Votes like this one, which feature three competing parties (albeit without much distance between them on the policy in question) aren’t really what the Standing Orders envisage.

Yesterday’s SNP motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza was unusual because it was, yes, about the government’s policy, but the party most rattled by it was Labour.

Breaking with convention, Lindsay Hoyle selected Labour’s amendment to go forward and in effect allowed the party to take over the SNP’s opposition day debate. By giving the former a vote on its amendment first, he essentially ensured that the SNP would not get a vote on its terms — a move for which he later apologised.

Now, it’s true to say that opposition day debates envisage a mode of politics in which there is a binary government vs opposition set of perspectives, and they aren’t really set up for a more fluid government vs opposition party vs another opposition party vs another opposition party, which increasingly is how politics in the UK is conducted.

But Hoyle ran for Speaker essentially on a “no more innovations and unusual experiments” ticket. Ironically, the former Labour MP introduced a means to allow the Commons’ chief constitutional adviser to place on public records when the Speaker of the day departed from long-standing conventions and/or the Standing Orders. This change was done as a signal that the age of John Bercow’s innovations had come to a halt.

So one reason why MPs, particularly Conservative MPs who were an essential component of Hoyle’s path to the Speaker’s Chair, are angry, is they feel they were sold a false bill of goods, that the “no more unusual experiments” candidate they thought they were voting for was actually a “no more unusual experiments unless the Labour party is in a hole” candidate.

The other reason — and this feeling is particularly strong among SNP MPs — is that it allowed a larger opposition party to gazump a smaller one, going against the spirit of opposition day debates.

That’s why Conservative and SNP MPs are angry. An early day motion expressing a loss of confidence in Hoyle has more than 40 signatures this morning. As it stands, while those signatories are currently confined to the SNP and the Conservative right, Hoyle will be battered but not under threat. But if the desire to oust him spreads to the rest of the Tory party, as it could well do, Hoyle’s days as speaker might be numbered.

What will certainly run and run is the debate over Hoyle’s expressed rationale for allowing multiple amendments — that he was concerned about threats to MPs’ security. This danger is real and serious: several MPs have had to curtail constituency activities due to death threats over this issue. Don’t forget that two MPs have been assassinated in the past decade by political extremists. The question of how parliament responds to that is likely to overwhelm any conversation about Hoyle and procedure.

Now try this

This week, I mostly listened to Fleetwood Mac’s excellent record Tusk while filling in for Robert Shrimsley in today’s FT.

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