At the start of Francesco Rosi’s 1984 film of Carmen, there is a scene in which the bull, enraged but weakened by the fight, the loss of blood from wounds caused by lances and the many banderillas thrust into its head, is finally despatched by the toreador inserting a sword between the beast’s shoulder blades into the heart. It mirrors the final scene when Jose, maddened by Carmen’s indifference, kills her in the same arena. The scene does not make for easy watching, though the whole film is one which should certainly be viewed.
Opposing a government is much like bull-fighting. Before the final coup de grâce, the government must be fought, day in, day out, harried, attacked, relentlessly worried by the opposition on all fronts – at PMQs, in Select Committees, during committee stages, in the press, in every possible forum – and in a multitude of ways: Parliamentary procedure, questioning, motions, forensic analysis, debates etc.
No opportunity should be lost to keep the government under pressure It must be kept on its toes, never allowed to rest, to take anything for granted; it must be weakened, it must be forced into errors and made to account for its actions. Ministers must be made to explain themselves. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies and woolly statements must be ruthlessly pounced on. The opposition should, however hard this might be, have the mindset of a predator playing with its victim. It is not easy but it can be done: think of John Smith and the way he could turn even a false start in the Grand National into a scornful dismissal of the haplessness of a country run by John Major. Think too of Thatcher, who as a shadow Treasury Minister relentlessly attacking Labour’s budget plans, gave succour to the demoralised Tories (and did her own reputation no end of good when it came to the subsequent leadership election). Or Blair and Brown, who never let Major’s Tories off the hook in the years leading to their 1997 victory.
Individually these measures may not kill the government or even get many victories. But they can demoralise it and, importantly, sustain the opposition’s confidence. They hone the opposition’s skills and help prepare it for government. They show the voters that there is an alternative. And they lay the groundwork, they help create the opportunities, so that when the time comes that the government is so weakened or behaves so outrageously or seeks to do something harmful, the opposition can pounce. And, crucially, an opposition doing this needs to accept that there may be a number of false starts, that the right opportunity will not necessarily present itself neatly packaged when it suits it, that it needs to be prepared to fail rather than spend its time finding excuses for doing nothing. Opposition is not about inertia and not interrupting your enemy. (Even Napoleon did not follow his own dictum.) It is about probing, finding the weak spots, forcing your opponent to make mistakes, about creating opportunities and then taking advantage.
Predictably enough, Labour has opposed the Lib Dems attempt to have a VoNC in the new Johnson administration. The reason seems to be that this would simply shore him up: such attempts should only be made if they will succeed is the explanation. There may be something in this but in reality it means an opposition which is outsourcing its main function to internal opponents in the governing party. It is abandoning the field of battle because it is worried about failing. It is, frankly, pathetic.
It is an approach which would have elicited scorn from other successful Opposition Leaders. The last successful VoNC in a government was on 28 March 1979 when Callaghan lost. What is often forgotten is that in the preceding three years there had been 5 Motions of No Confidence. All lost, of course. But not pointless: the government was forced to defend itself. Thatcher honed her skills, learnt, became a better Opposition leader, used these as rehearsals so that when the time came and the opportunity to put a tired, exhausted, incompetent government overseeing crises in the streets and problems with Scotland and Wales, the opposition was ready. The sword was plunged and hit its mark.
What might be raised in a VoNC debate now? Well how about:-
- How the government will in the time available pass the legislation necessary to ensure even a No Deal Brexit – 6 Bills and a host of other measures.
- What happens if those Bills are not passed.
- Demands that the government publish the advice it has received in relation to the risks of a No Deal exit.
- Demands that the government publish the legal advice it has received about the steps it can take in relation to a No Deal exit.
- Demands for confirmation that the government will not seek to prorogue Parliament and what legal advice it has received in this regard.
- What legal advice it has received about its obligations in relation payment of monies due to the EU in the event of a No Deal exit.
- How the government is going to ensure compliance with the terms of the GFA.
- Why the government has abandoned its manifesto commitment to seek an orderly withdrawal from the EU.
- How the government is going to ensure that senior Cabinet Ministers and special advisors comply with the Ministerial Code and other relevant ethical codes.
- How are British territorial waters going to be enforced post a No Deal exit. What happens if access to European ports is denied or delayed to British fishermen seeking to export their catch.
- What steps will be taken post 31 December 2019 in relation to permits for UK hauliers when the current arrangements come to an end.
- How will cross-border data provision be managed – a subject which sounds boring but is critical to many businesses.
- How will co-operation in law enforcement work.
And so on. There is no shortage of stuff to say, to expose the government’s ill-preparedness or to challenge its approach and force it and its supporters to come up with specificities not bluff and bluster and marketing slogans. This is exactly what an opposition should be doing. It requires sharp, intelligent, forensic minds, MPs prepared to do their homework and coolly and relentlessly demolish a government led by a man who thinks that the phrase “Not Betting against Britain” is a plan rather than a slogan. Johnson is good at what lawyers term “jury speeches”. To deflate them you need a mind like a razor and the ability to skewer – not a jury speech of your own.
Instead, there is a rally to demand a general election but no attempt within Parliament to use the tools put in place to try and achieve this outcome. This is the action of a posturing coward. Not an opposition leader who wants to become PM. Or it is the action of someone who is perfectly content for these issues to be left unanswered, not dealt with, in the hope that any subsequent chaos can be blamed on the government and he can waltz into power on the back of it. The idea that he might then have to deal with the chaos seems to have been forgotten in all the excitement of shouting about Tory austerity and attacking other opposition leaders.
For our Parliamentary democracy to work, we need a good, strong opposition. Those who view with concern or worse the shift in policy resulting from an internal Tory party vote deserve an opposition. Those who did not vote for this party or for this policy deserve an opposition. The countries in the union which did not vote for this government or policy deserve an opposition. The voters Labour claims to speak for deserve an opposition. The people Labour claims to care about deserve an opposition. The whole country deserves an opposition which does its job.
We do not have such an opposition. For shame, Labour. For shame.