Fracking farce

Labour dig a Heffalump trap in plain sight.

What do the Heffalumps do? 

Walk straight into it.

(Careerist Jupp does his duty). – Owl

Peter Walker 

A crunch Commons vote on the future of fracking has descended into mayhem after more than 40 Conservative MPs failed to back Liz Truss’s government, with MPs alleging ministers physically pulled some wavering Tories into the voting lobbies. [The chaos was great that even the voting numbers remain unclear Pippa Crerar now writes: Initially it looked like Liz Truss herself had missed the vote, but we’re told she did in fact vote… just forgot to swipe her pass.

Shortly after the vote, there were reports that the chief whip, Wendy Morton, and her deputy, Craig Whittaker, had lost their jobs. However, Downing Street later cleared up the rumours by saying the pair “remain in post”.

The government victory, by 326 votes opposing the Labour motion to 230 backing it, was marred by claims of intimidation and bullying on a turbulent night in the Commons.

While ministers successfully defeated the Labour motion, which sought to set up a vote which would formally ban drilling for shale gas in England, a total of 40 Tory MPs failed to support the government.

While some, like Boris Johnson, are simply away, the rebels included Tory MPs who had promised to defy a three-line whip, including Chris Skidmore, the former minister who heads up Truss’s review into net zero policies.

Other confirmed rebels included another former minister Tracey Crouch and MPs including William Wragg and Angela Richardson. No Tories voted directly with Labour.

Tory whips had written to MPs in the morning to warn that the vote was being seen as confidence measure, meaning the government would collapse if it lost and rebels would lose the whip.

However, near the end of the debate, with several MPs saying they would risk losing the whip, the climate minister, Graham Stuart, told the Commons: “Quite clearly this is not a confidence vote.”

Shortly after the vote, the Labour MP Chris Bryant used a point of order to tell the Commons that he saw Tory MPs being “physically manhandled” into the government voting lobby. He asked for a formal investigation.

In the wake of the chaos, Penny Mordaunt, the Commons leader, was seen trying to calm a group of mostly female MPs who had gathered to discuss what they witnessed. Mordaunt was seen encouraging witnesses to send her evidence or further details on WhatsApp.

One Tory backbencher said it was “the most bullying, screaming and shouting” they had seen in the voting lobbies, with Morton and Whittaker being engaged in a “full-blown shouting match”.

Another said Whittaker had been seen telling colleagues: “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck any more.”

Afterwards, whips were said to have been gathered for an urgent meeting, with several parliamentary private secretaries deciding they would tell Morton and Whittaker to go.

Veteran Tory backbencher Charles Walker, who is due to step down as an MP at the next election, said the scenes on Wednesday were “inexcusable”. “I think it’s a shambles and a disgrace,” a visibly shaken Walker told the BBC, before railing at the “talentless” people in the cabinet.

He added: “I’m livid and I really shouldn’t say this but all those people that put Liz Truss in No 10, I hope it was worth it, it was worth it for the ministerial red box, as it was worth it to sit round the cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.”

However, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business and energy secretary, disputed this, pointing to the government’s majority in the vote. He said: “This is a government that is functioning well.”

The bedlam risks obscuring a potentially even more significant Tory fracture over the disquiet of many government MPs about Truss’s decision to overturn the moratorium on fracking in England.

Skidmore, a leading voice of green Tories, said earlier he was willing to “face the consequences of my decision” to not back the government, even if this meant losing the whip.

“As the former energy minister who signed net zero into law, for the sake of our environment and climate I cannot personally vote tonight to support fracking and undermine the pledges I made at the 2019 general election,” he tweeted.

Crouch retweeted Skidmore’s message with the added word, “Ditto”, as did Richardson.

Despite efforts by Rees-Mogg to quell MPs’ fury by setting up a public consultation on fracking, a series of other Tories had told the debate that they were furious about the change of policy.

A number said they would only support the government because they felt Labour were trying to “play politics” with a motion that would give the opposition control of the order paper.

Ruth Edwards, the Rushcliffe MP, castigated the Tory frontbench for, she said, forcing her and colleagues “to choose between voting against our manifesto and voting to lose the whip”.

She added: “They should take a look at the faces of colleagues behind them, colleagues who have fracking sites in their constituencies, and they should hang their heads in shame. A Conservative government will always have my confidence, but its leadership today has severely tested my trust and the trust of many colleagues and I would advise them not to do so again.”

Simon Hoare, the North Dorset MP, said he would have rebelled but wanted to keep his “voice and vote” as a Tory. He warned, however, that fracking was doomed as a project. “It’s not going to happen. These are bald men fighting over a comb. No local community is going to grant consent,” he said.

Ed Miliband, the shadow climate and net zero secretary, said the government was pursuing a “frack me or sack me strategy”, saying fracking was “one of the most unpopular causes in the country”.

He added: “In normal times such an idiotic idea would have been dismissed out of hand but these are not normal times. But I say to the house and I say to members opposite, they all know that the prime minister will be gone in a matter of weeks, if not days, if not hours.”

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised to maintain a moratorium on fracking unless there was new evidence on the risk of earthquakes from the practice. But Truss’s government changed this last month.

In a message to all MPs on Wednesday morning, Whittaker had said: “The second debate is the main event today and it is a 100% hard three-line whip. This is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the government.”

Labour sources said Tory whips had walked into a trap set for them, and that although they did not expect to win the vote, the opposition had online adverts ready to go targeting every Tory MP who backed fracking.