A Parliamentary vote on a Labour ban on fracking ended in chaos last night, amid allegations of ministers physically pushing their own MPs into voting down the motion and reports that the Conservatives’ two top discipline enforcers had quit.
Six hours after the vote, No 10 Downing Street tweeted political journalists that, contrary to earlier evidence, the Chief Whip and her deputy had not quit their jobs.
Poor administration by the government led to confusion among the party’s MPs as to whether failing to oppose a Labour motion banning fracking would lead to them being expelled from the Conservatives’ group at Westminster.
Winding up the government’s response to Labour’s motion, climate minister Graham Stuart had said that ‘quite clearly this is not a confidence vote”. With several Conservatives voicing opposition to fracking during the debate, a belief had grown that a three-line whip on Tories had been withdrawn. Sources from Number 10 later told political journalists that the minister Stuart was mistaken.
The Conservatives won by 326 votes to 230. But conduct of ministers in the voting lobbies provoked MPs, with Labour’s Chris Bryant asking the deputy speaker to initiate an enquiry into scenes of intimidation and pushing during the vote, in breach of Parliament’s anti-bullying code.
SNP MP David Linden told BBC Radio 5 Live at around 11:00pm after a flight to Glasgow that he had earlier seen deputy Prime Minister Therese Coffey pushing a junior Tory backbencher into the government’s lobby.
Parliamentary journalist Pippa Crear tweeted that chief whip Wendy Morton shouted “I am no longer chief whip” in the lobby within feet of Liz Truss. Morton is pictured, care of the Press Association.
Morton’s deputy Craig Whittaker MP also tweeted at the time an expletive-laden outburst, taken as a sign of his resignation.
The turmoil and reports of ministerial intimidation capped off another day of chaos for premier Liz Truss’s crumbling administration. Right-winger Suella Braverman had earlier been unseated as Home Secretary in a row over email security.
Shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband had opened the fracking debate, asking “Conservatives of conscience” to endorse Labour’s call for a ban on extracting shale gas, thereby honouring the 2019 manifesto which Tories had presented to electors. It committed Tories to re-introduce fracking only when it could be proved categorically to be safe.
A U-turn on the Conservatives’ December 2019 pledge was signalled in September by energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Replying to Milliband, Rees-Mogg assured MPs that local communities will continue to exercise a veto over fracking companies seeking planning permission to dig for shale gas under their homes.
Consent would be guaranteed by independent mechanisms outside the control of fracking companies, he assured MPs. Launching a public consultation to define such mechanisms, he cited examples such as local referendums overseen by the Electoral Commission.
When lifting the two-year old fracking ban last month, Rees-Mogg had indicated that consent might be include communities accepting cash from fracking companies for local initiatives.
Labour had initiated yesterday’s debate in a Parliamentary manoeuvre designed to force Tory backbenchers either to declare a ban for all time on fracking in their areas, or to support a Government counter motion making Labour’s proposal a motion of confidence in the Truss government.
Milliband reminded MPs that the Johnson government had introduced the fracking moratorium in 2019 out of fears for the practice’s environmental impacts, including earth tremors recorded at 2.7 on the Richter scale, polluted acquifers and leaks of methane and carbon-dioxide in its production.
UK-fracked gas could not be produced in amounts capable of lowering prices paid on European markets, said the Labour front-bencher, directly quoting a judgement this April by then energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
Permitting exploitation of all British carbon-rich reserves would set a precedent for every other nation to follow suit, a move guaranteed to push global heating way over 3 degrees by 2100, he said.
Miliband attacked the attempt by the government’s managers of parliamentary business to turn Labour’s motion into a de facto vote of no confidence in Truss’ administration. Conservatives voting against any such re-defined measure would risk losing the Tory whip.
“The whips have turned this into a “Frack me or Sack me” event”, he jibed Conservatives.
Government MPs representing rural seats from Sussex and Somerset to Yorkshire lined up to voice to Rees-Mogg continuing disquiet among their electors over the Truss government’s desire.
Miliband pointed out that the Conservative council in Fylde, Lancashire, centre of the drilling which led to the 2019 moratorium, had unanimously voted to oppose Rees-Mogg’s lifting of the ban.
The seat’s Conservative MP Mark Menzies told the debate that fracking in his constituency had twice led to national suspensions of the practice.
“The fracking industry has had a decade to prove that extraction can be carried out safely in Fylde. Every time they’ve tried, the same thing has happened. The geology of Fylde has not changed. I remain convinced that the area is wholly unsuited to fracking”.
Labour lost by 230 votes, against 324 for the government. Those not voting reportedly include premier for now Liz Truss, and her sacked predecessor Alexander Johnson, reportedly on another holiday, this time in the Caribbean.
But confusion over the consequences of the Tories’ U-turn on fracking lingered after the debate.
It is believed that a last-minute retreat by Conservative whips from threats of discipline against MPs had been caused by their realisation of the numbers of colleagues likely to support or abstain from the Labour motion.