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Vote on Queen’s Speech amendment represents test of May’s control of Commons

It is a test the Prime Minister is likely to pass, thanks to Monday’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party.

The vote on Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech represents the first test of Theresa May’s control of the House of Commons since the General Election.

It is a test the Prime Minister is likely to pass, thanks to Monday’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, which committed its 10 MPs to vote with the Conservatives in certain crucial divisions.

Under the “confidence and supply” agreement, the DUP has guaranteed its backing not only in Queen’s Speech votes but also on motions of confidence, the Budget, legislation involving Brexit or national security and various bills relating to government spending.

The parliamentary arithmetic following the June 8 General Election means this agreement offers Mrs May a precarious working majority on votes where defeat might otherwise bring her minority Government down.

But the DUP’s support over more routine legislation will be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the PM remains highly vulnerable to backbench rebellions among her own Tories, with the result that much of the Conservative manifesto has been discarded as potentially undeliverable.

With 317 Conservative MPs, Mrs May is nine votes short of the tally of 326 required to hold an absolute majority in the House of 650 MPs. The support of the 10 DUP members takes her a single vote beyond this minimum.

However, in reality the backing needed for a working majority is 320, as the Speaker and his three deputies – one Tory and two Labour MPs, due for election on Wednesday before the Queen’s Speech division – do not vote and Sinn Fein’s seven MPs are not expected to take up their seats.

With the support of the DUP, Mrs May can expect to clear this hurdle by a margin of six in crucial votes.

But it would take just seven backbench rebels to overturn her slender advantage. And with deep splits within her own party over Brexit, a revolt on this scale is all too easy to envisage as the process of EU withdrawal grinds its way through Parliament over the coming months.

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In votes which fall outside the confidence and supply agreement, she will find herself having to woo four MPs from other parties over to her side to be sure of getting any legislation through.

It is in situations like these that the whips’ office takes a central role in Parliament, persuading, cajoling and browbeating recalcitrant backbenchers to follow the party line and to turn up for every vote.

(PA graphic)

On previous occasions when the balance of power in the Commons has sat on a knife-edge in this way, this has meant ministers cutting short overseas trips and ill MPs leaving their sickbeds to get to Westminster for key votes.

And it has given additional significance to by-elections, which have heightened potential to undermine or bolster the Government’s position.

In 1979, James Callaghan’s one-vote defeat in a vote of confidence which brought down his government was blamed by some on his decision not to require a mortally ill MP – who died less than a week later – to be brought by ambulance to the Commons. Similar scenes cannot be ruled out as Mrs May struggles to maintain her grip on power.

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