Belfast Telegraph

Commons backs Queen's Speech after Government's abortion funding pledge

Theresa May has cleared her first major Commons hurdle of the new Parliament as MPs backed the Government's legislative programme for next two years.

The House voted by 323 to 309 to approve the Queen's Speech with the Democratic Unionists supporting the Government in line with their deal struck with the Conservatives earlier this week.

However it only passed after ministers rushed out an announcement of funding for women in Northern Ireland to have abortions in England on the NHS in order to head off a Tory revolt which threatened to derail the whole process.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Government had survived by "the skin of their teeth" due to the backing of the DUP.

However Mr Corbyn had problems of his own, with 49 Labour MPs defying the leadership vote for an amendment calling for Britain to remain in the EU single market and the customs union.

Following the vote Mr Corbyn sacked three shadow ministers, Andy Slaughter, Ruth Cadbury and Catherine West, who voted with the rebels. A fourth, Daniel Zeichner, quit voluntarily.

Mrs May's difficulties began when the senior Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley added his name to an amendment calling for funding so women in Northern Ireland, where there are much tighter controls on abortion, could have a termination in England without paying.

If the amendment, tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, had passed it would have meant the staunchly anti-abortion DUP would have been asked to support a Queen's Speech which explicitly provides for women from Northern Ireland to have free abortions.

Rather than risk more Tory MPs joining Sir Peter in supporting the amendment, raising the prospect of a Government defeat, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced ministers had found the cash needed.

"I know this is a matter of great importance to members on both sides of the House and an issue which I know my colleagues on the Treasury bench have been looking for a solution to," he said.

The concession was welcomed by Ms Creasy, who withdrew her amendment without putting it to a vote, on the basis of the Government's assurances.

"Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this Parliament, their voices will be heard and their rights upheld," she told MPs.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the estimated cost was around £1 million-a-year, but added: "We are committed to funding in excess of this if required to meet the commitment."

The Government's decision to concede so rapidly underlined the fragility of Mrs May's position in the Commons where she is now dependent on the votes of the 10 DUP MPs, having lost her majority in the General Election.

The arrangement with the DUP, which will see £1 billion channelled to Northern Ireland, was bitterly denounced chamber by Tory backbencher Heidi Allen who said they should have been prepared to govern as a minority administration.

"I want an honest, transparent, collaborative, respectful and positive kind of politics so I can barely put into words my anger at the deal my party has done with the DUP. We didn't need to do it," she said.

"I must put on record my distaste for the use of public funds to garner political control.

"We should have run with a minority government and showed the country what mature, progressive politics looks like."

In a statement, Mr Corbyn said: "The Conservatives survived by the skin of their teeth today, supported by the DUP, but this is a Government in chaos."

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