£1m abortion pledge to head off revolt

Chancellor Philip Hammond
Chancellor Philip Hammond

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 DUP 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 that the government will fund women in Northern Ireland to have abortions on the English NHS, in order to head off the threat of a Tory revolt which could have derailed the whole process.

The amendment had been brought by Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who wanted to have it written into the Queen’s Speech that Northern Irish women could cross the Irish Sea to have terminations without paying.

Senior Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley had added his name to the Labour amendment, and rather than risk more Tory MPs joining Sir Peter, chancellor Philip Hammond declared that ministers had found the cash needed to support such a scheme.

On the basis of the government’s assurances, Ms Creasy then withdrew her amendment without putting it to a vote.

If the amendment had passed, it would have meant the staunchly anti-abortion DUP would have been asked to support a Queen’s Speech which explicitly provided for women from Northern Ireland to have free abortions.

In the end, nine of the 10 DUP MPs cast votes in support of the Queen’s Speech.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) was the only member from the party not to vote, and the DUP whips’ office said Mr Campbell had had a personal engagement at home and was unable to attend.

Independent Lady Hermon, who represents the Northern Ireland constituency of North Down, also supported the Queen’s Speech.

There were 257 Labour MPs who voted against it, along with 35 SNP, 12 Lib Dems, four Plaid Cymru and Green MP Caroline Lucas.

The Government’s decision to concede so rapidly over the abortion payments underlined the fragility of Mrs May’s position in the Commons where she is now dependent on the votes of the 10 DUP MPs.

Downing Street said the estimated cost of providing Northern Irish women’s abortions for free would be around £1 million-a-year, but added: “We are committed to funding in excess of this if required to meet the commitment.”

The cash is expected to come from the Government Equalities Office.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said: “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.”

Ms Creasy told the Commons: “Thank you to all the members of the House who supported the rights of Northern Irish women to have equal access to abortion.

“I am delighted at today’s announcement by the government and I am satisfied...

“Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this Parliament their voice will be heard and their rights upheld.”

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

But Mr Corbyn also faced a rebellion from some of his MPs after ordering them to abstain on an amendment tabled by one of his own MPs, Chuka Umunna.

Mr Umunna had called on the government to outline post-Brexit proposals for how Britain will remain in the European single market and customs union.

A total of 49 Labour MPs voted in favour of the amendment, which was defeated by 322 votes to 101.

Afterwards, Jeremy Corbyn fired three of his front bench team.

Meanwhile, a separate Labour amendment bemoaning the government for failing to end austerity and reverse falling living standards was also defeated by 323 votes to 297.

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