The House of Commons today approved the estimates with the official opposition abstaining, despite a brief kerfuffle over a challenge to the government’s wafer-thin majority, the angst around the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the fact that the conservative leadership election means that not only the personnel, but the policy, of the government after July are deeply uncertain. For the main opposition to vote against the estimates is fairly unusual, as shown in Nikki da Costa’s tweets here. Even the traditional practice of indicating disapproval for specific government spending plans by proposing an amendment which reduces an estimate by a token amount seems to have become rare.
It is understandable that the official opposition and any potential rebels from the government side are reluctant to be seen to be obstructing the funding of government services. They were not helped in this instance by the fact that it was only possible to propose amendments to those estimates which had been selected for debate by the backbench business committee, which also happened to be largely those for departments concerned with delivering frontline services (no-one seems to have thought of applying for a debate on the estimates of the Department for Exiting the EU). A complicated attempt to get round all this by tabling an unusual amendment that provided only conditional approval, subject to either the conclusion of a withdrawal agreement or an explicit vote approving withdrawal without an agreement, was never likely to be accepted by the Speaker, for reasons outlined in this very helpful Hansard Society blog .
In some ways, though, the reluctance to vote against the estimates is puzzling; for the threat to withhold funding from government was the key card that early dissidents could play in extracting concessions from the Crown: ‘grievances before supply’ is one of the most ancient slogans in politics, still occasionally, if largely meaninglessly, heard today. It’s also in striking contrast to the situation in the US, where shutdowns are a pretty frequent occurrence, even though blame for them is freely bandied about between the parties. The unimportance of government finance in parliamentary politics today might be attributed to the fusion of the executive and the legislature in the British constitution, and the firm hold that British government managed to establish over the process of producing the estimates in the early eighteenth century. This is sometimes seen as a defence against logrolling; but a Parliament that has effectively delegated to government the detail of state finance has become unable to take the whole process of agreeing a budget very seriously. Parliamentary engagement with the estimates was not helped by the 1896 reforms to estimates procedure, which replaced most individual votes, all amendable (albeit only if the amendment did not have the effect of increasing the amount voted), with a single, unamendable vote on all government finance, making it impossible to convey complex and more voter-friendly messages about priorities.
Official oppositions have occasionally decided to vote against specific estimates, and a couple of examples are particularly instructive. The first of them comes from 1827, during the search for a replacement for the Tory prime minister, Lord Liverpool, who had suffered a severe stroke in mid-February. There was much speculation about whether Liverpool’s most likely successor, the liberal Tory George Canning, would seek an alliance with Whigs, particularly on the basis of a commitment to Catholic emancipation. George Tierney, who took a leading role in the Commons for the Whigs without exactly being their leader, on 30 March 1827 demanded that the estimates could not be agreed until it was known who would be prime minister:
it was impossible to imagine a grant which was more a grant of confidence than this. His chief objection was, that it was a grant of confidence; and confidence to whom? He would ask… before he consented to grant a sum of 300,000l. he must know to whom it was to be granted, and who were to be responsible for the proper application of it… From the unwillingness of gentlemen on his side of the house to do any thing which could embarrass the government, or impede the passing of the supplies which were necessary to carry on the public service, every thing which government required had been granted, just as if there had been an entire and undivided administration. The time, however, was now come, in which it was the duty of the house that it would at length exert its energies, as it was a mere mockery to talk any longer about delicacy and forbearance… It was undoubtedly the privilege of His Majesty to choose his own ministers, but then it was no less undoubtedly the privilege of the House of Commons to stop the supplies until the royal prerogative was exercised, and the House was made acquainted with the person to whom the disposal of those supplies was to be intrusted… It was right that when public affairs were in the miserable state of incertitude in which the affairs of this great empire now unfortunately were, the representatives of the people should keep in their hands the means of making the fitting appropriations for the service of the commonwealth. It was his bounden duty, as a member of the House of Commons, to prevent the house from being sent about its business when all the grants were gone through, without knowing to whom the administration was to be intrusted till the time of its next meeting; and the best mode of preventing that result appeared to him to be the withholding of the supplies. [The Times, 31 March 1827]
In fact, to complicate matters, the vote was not on the Estimates themselves, but (as was common at the time) on a peripheral, procedural question – an amendment to the motion to receive a report from the committee of supply which contained a series of resolutions based on the estimates. It was no doubt helpful that a vote could be held on such procedural questions, rather than directly against the resolutions. Tierney probably never expected to win the division, given the dominance of the Tories at the time; and he did, indeed, lose it. Two months later, however, a coalition of Liberal Tories and Whigs under the leadership of Canning was formed.
The other case is the Labour party’s routine practice of voting against the defence estimates in the 1930s, a source of fierce debate within the party, particularly after the assistance given by Italy and Germany to the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War started to make its insistence on multilateral conflict resolution through the League of Nations impractical. Though the party’s leader, Clement Attlee, became a strong advocate of international intervention in Spain, he was more reluctant than many on the right of the party (particularly Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton) to drop the opposition to the defence estimates, arguing that it would present the Government with a blank cheque to begin a massive programme of rearmament – with no guarantees on how the weapons would be used. Attlee was also deeply opposed to the claim, common among those arguing for a change of policy, that Labour’s votes against the Estimates were too easy to represent as a completely pacifist position – a rejection of all provision for defence. He insisted that ‘if it is decided in future not to vote against the Service Estimates, it will be necessary to cease voting against any supply estimates, for henceforth according to the doctrine now propounded, a vote against the Home Office will mean that we desire to abolish factory inspection. Motions of reduction or against estimates are the historic method of insisting that redress of grievances precede supply’. [quoted by John Swift, Labour in Crisis: Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in Opposition, 1931-40 (2001), p. 207.] The question was thrashed out at the party conference in 1936, and subsequently at the Parliamentary Labour Party: Attlee was eventually overruled, and the party changed its position. I don’t know whether, as Attlee predicted, the official opposition has voted against a whole estimate (as opposed to backing amendments) since.