The last 24 hours in politics have been nothing short of disastrous for the Prime Minister. But if heightened calls for Liz Truss to resign, rumours of a 1922 Committee rule change so MPs can oust her, and an unexpectedly departing Home Secretary weren’t enough - a vote on fracking in the House of Commons last night (19 October) also dissolved into complete chaos.
Allegations that MPs were “bullied” and “manhandled” into voting with the government have emerged, and Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has announced he has asked the Serjeant at Arms and other officials to investigate the accusations and scenes of disorder. He is set to meet with senior party members to “seek an agreed position that behaviour like that described last night is not acceptable in all circumstances.”
The disorder was reportedly triggered by confusion over whether the vote, which the Labour Party introduced in an attempt to ban fracking, amounted to a motion of confidence in the government. It comes as the Prime Minister is facing mounting pressure from her own party to resign, with rumours circulating of a plot to drive her from Number 10.
But while ministers have denied claims that physical force had been used to persuade colleagues to vote in support of the government, which won the vote by a majority of 96, Labour MP Chris Bryant, who witnessed the scenes, said what he saw was “clear bullying.”
This is what has been said so far.
Why did the chaos start?
At around midday, ahead of the evening vote on Labour’s motion to ban fracking, Number 10 advisers told MPs that this would be “a vote of confidence in the government”. This means that Tory MPs would be required to vote in support of the government, or face the possibility of losing the whip (in other words, no longer be a member of the Conservatives). Essentially, MPs - many of whom opposed fracking - had to choose between supporting Truss - or openly revolting against her.
But just moments before voting started, MPs were suddenly told by climate minister Graham Stuart that it was no longer a confidence, prompting widespread confusion. Chaos then ensued as whips, who are responsible for discipline in the parliamentary party, tried to get Tory MPs to vote against the motion, with many unsure over whether or not people could vote as desired.
Accusations of “manhandling” and “bullying” in the voting lobbies have subsequently emerged - with the speaker of the House of Commons launching an investigation into the incident.
No 10 has since said Stuart had been “mistakenly” told by Downing Street to say the vote should not be treated as a confidence motion, and that MPs were “fully aware” it was subject to a three-line whip. A spokesman added that the whips would be speaking to the Tories who failed to support the government, and those without a “reasonable excuse” would face “proportionate disciplinary action” – although there were no details given of how severe the punishment would be.
Suggestions emerged following the chaos that Chief Whip Wendy Morton and her deputy Craig Whittaker had left their roles. However, the government has since confirmed that both MPs remain in post.
There was also confusion over whether or not Truss had managed to vote amidst the mayhem, but she is now listed on the Parliament website as having voted ‘no’ - with sources saying she forgot to swipe her pass.
What have MPs said?
Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News that to “characterise [what happened] as bullying was mistaken.” But he is in the minority.
Labour MP Chris Bryant said after the vote yesterday that MPs should be able to vote “without fear or favour”, adding “we want to stand up against bullying.” Speaking further on the event on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (20 October), he claimed: “I saw a whole swathe of MPs effectively pushing one member straight through the door. I’ve seen photographic evidence of one MP’s hand on another.”
He alleged that Tory MPs, including one whip, were “literally crying on my shoulder,” declaring he had “never seen scenes like that” and that “all of this is happening because there is complete chaos in government."
Similarly, “livid” Tory backbencher Sir Charles Walker told the BBC: "This whole affair is inexcusable. It is a pitiful reflection on the Conservative Parliamentary Party at every level. All those people that put Liz Truss in No 10, I hope it was worth it.” He also warned that “many hundreds” of Conservative MPs would lose their seats at the next election “unless we get our act together and behave like grown-ups.”
Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Ian Murray, said he witnessed "whips screaming at Tories" and described it as "open warfare". While Labour MP for Cardiff North Anna McMorrin said she saw “one Tory member in tears being manhandled into the lobby to vote against our motion”.
But Conservative MP Alexander Stafford contradicted the “bullying” claims on Twitter, writing that he had a "frank and robust conversation outside the voting lobbies confirming my opposition to fracking, with members of the government, nothing more". He added: "No one pushes me around.”
Meanwhile, speaker Sir Lindsay has ordered an investigation into the incident to “ensure that these scenes and indeed these situations do not happen again,” saying in a statement that: “I remind MPs that the behaviour code applies to them as well as to other members of our parliamentary community.”
What happened in the vote?
Labour’s motion to ban fracking was defeated by 230 votes to 326. Around 40 Tory MPs did not vote, although many of them would have had permission to be absent.
The vote was the first parliamentary test of the government’s fracking plans, but most saw it as unlikely to overturn government policy, given the size of the Conservative Party’s current majority.