Can a parliamentary vote be non binding?

The government should now draft a new budget proposal which results in a real terms cut and then seek to win over other member states to their view

The mother of all parliaments?
Sir John Redwood MP
On 2 November 2012 15:00

I am intrigued by the new doctrine of the non binding vote. As far as I am concerned, a vote in parliament is a vote in parliament.

It results in whatever action or expression of opinion is contained in the motion approved. As sensible ministers accepted yesterday morning, parliament had expressed a view and the government has to live with that result.

It is true that Mr Reckless’s amendment did not simply instruct the government to negotiate a cut in the EU budget. It did however call on  the government to seek a real terms cut. It did not specify how large the cut should be nor how the government should try to negotiate it.

That was sensibly left to the government to determine, as Mr Reckless was not seeking to oppose the government but to strengthen its negotiating hand. The actual words approved were "so calls on the government to strengthen its stance so that the next MFF (financial framework) is reduced in real terms”.

The government can scarcely argue now that just seeking a real terms freeze is a sufficient response to the motion as passed. Parliament’s will was clear. It wishes the government to seek a real terms cut. That is exactly what the government should do. The government put its case as to why it should not seek a cut, and lost the vote.

The government cannot argue that there was something unclear about the amendment, nor can they say parliament failed to express its view with sufficient numbers. 601 MPs voted, an unusually large number. All were whipped to do so.

13 Conservatives abstained. nine of those abstained on principle, because they did not agree with either the government or the amendment, or perhaps did not wish to vote with Labour on the amendment whilst agreeing with it. Four were granted leave of absence. Doubtless some members of other parties were also away on approved duties or sick. A rerun is unlikely to produce a different result or many more voting.

The government should now draft a new budget proposal which results in a real terms cut. They should then seek to win over other member states to their view. Sweden is already working on cuts to the budget. Germany is not keen to see spending going up.

There is another reason why the government should seek to do as parliament advises. If the government does at some stage agree a budget and a framework with the rest of the EU, it will need parliamentary approval for the expenditure that entails.

If parliament is satisfied the government tried its best to get a real terms cut, parliament may vote for the money. If parliament thinks the government did not try or does not like the outcome, parliament can refuse to sign the cheques, leaving the government without the means to implement its promises to the EU.

At some stage the government will need a very binding vote, a vote to approve spending. That is when government and parliament had best agree. Ministers cannot take for granted the voting of extra spending for the EU after the vote this week. They need to explain that to the rest of the EU.

They also need to reassure parliament that we should vote for the final outcome, because they have done their best to get a deal parliament regards as acceptable in the circumstances.

John Redwood is the Member of Parliament for Wokingham and Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee

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