Whip-defying UK ministers will not be disciplined by May

Hammond, Clark, Gauke and Stewart among those who ignored voting instruction

Theresa May will take no disciplinary action against ministers who defied a three-line whip ordering them to vote against an amendment blocking her successor from suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit.

Chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, business secretary Greg Clark, justice secretary David Gauke and international development secretary Rory Stewart were among almost 30 Conservatives who abstained in Thursday's vote.

“The prime minister is obviously disappointed that a number of ministers failed to vote in this afternoon’s division. No doubt her successor will take this into account when forming their government,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

Business minister Margot James resigned before joining 16 other Conservative MPs to vote in favour of the amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. She said after the vote that a victory for Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership election would prompt others to follow the same path.


Amendment implications

“If we do end up with Boris as our prime minister, then I think quite a number of people who would have always been voting with the government will leave the government and will be doing everything they can with myself and others to make sure we leave with a deal, or we carry on negotiating or we look for another outcome,” she told the BBC.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said Downing Street was studying the implications of the amendment aimed at blocking the prorogation of parliament.

“My initial understanding of it is that we will have to do a report on or before September 4th and then a further report on or before October 9th, and subsequently fortnightly reports until December 18th or until a Northern Ireland Executive is formed if that is earlier. And it requires a debate on a neutral motion on the reports in the House of Commons ‘this House has considered this report’,” he said.

The Bill began as a simple measure to allow civil servants in Northern Ireland to continue exercising extra powers while talks continue towards restoring the Assembly and Executive. But it became the vehicle for extending same-sex marriage and abortion rights to Northern Ireland and for blocking the prorogation of parliament ahead of the October 31st Brexit deadline.

Restoring Stormont

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds noted that the Commons chamber only fills up during Northern Ireland debates when it serves the purpose of MPs with other interests. Ian Paisley described the Bill as an outrage, complaining that almost none of the debate on it was focused on its primary purpose of helping to restore the Stormont institutions.

“Instead, the Bill has been hijacked and used as a vehicle for every other subject under the sun, and every other fancy that members have with regard to their own pet subjects, important though they are. It is wrong that Northern Ireland will now be subjected to serious and perverse changes to its laws without proper scrutiny, without proper negotiation and without proper regulation,” he said.

Mr Dodds complained that the Bill would leave Northern Ireland with a more liberal abortion regime than other parts of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland minister John Penrose promised to move quickly to introduce regulations and guidelines for the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland from October.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times