How Did The Fracking Vote Lead To Liz Truss’ Resignation?
by Georgia Fulton
What Was The Fracking Ban Vote?
Liz Truss, former British Prime Minister, declared her resignation from the post just one day after the Labour opposition tabled a motion in the House of Commons to ban fracking. Conservative whips initially said that the vote (which took place on 19 October 2022) was being seen as a measure of confidence in Truss . Several MPs even stated openly that they planned to rebel with several other MPs staking their whip on abstention . In the end, the government won by 326 votes to 230 in the House of Commons . The vote was ultimately conducted along party lines: all Labour members who took part voted in favour of the motion, while all Conservative members who took part voted against it; including 32 Conservative abstentions .
The ‘Whip’, in British politics, is the name given to a document sent out, weekly, by those members of parliament appointed as whips [5,6]. This document ranks ‘divisions’ (where members vote on debates) in order of importance by the number of times they are underlined . In this categorisation a ‘three-line whip’ is the most serious ranking of a division. Therefore, defying a three-line whip is serious and can lead to MPs or Lords having ‘the whip withdrawn’ . This means that the Member may keep their seat, but is expelled from the party and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored.
The vote itself was proposed by Labour in an attempt to force the introduction of a draft law to ban fracking . This had become pertinent following the lifting of the 2019 moratorium on fracking after extensive work of Truss’ Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. While this even went against the Conservative’s own manifesto from 2019, which pledged not to support fracking unless it could be done safely, it fit well into Truss’ expansionist stance on the use of fossil fuels including the expansion of oil and gas drilling in the North Sea [8,9]. Faced with Conservative MPs unhappy with the turn their party was taking on this issue, Rees-Mogg stated ahead of the vote that communities would be able to ‘veto’ fracking in their area; a statement swiftly criticised by Labour MPs as unsubstantiated [10,11]. Furthermore, campaigns such as #StopRosebank, #StopCambo and #StopJackdaw are testament to the vocal public opposition to the developments in oil and gas proposed by the Conservative governments over the last few years [12,13,14]. Notably, #JustStopOil have also made headlines many times over the last weeks for their stunts which garnered public attention .
What Were The Consequences Of The Fracking Ban Vote?
Returning to 19 October: there were reports of ‘chaos’ and ‘manhandling’ in the queues for the vote, which caused commentators to suggest that it was a turning point for MPs . Despite Truss’ press secretary denying that the vote was one of ‘no confidence’, the many abstentions suggest otherwise [16,17]. The speaker of the House of Commons has announced that he will be launching an investigation into the behaviour of the whips as a result of the accusations from that evening .
This turning point—where a vote on fracking implicitly turned into an unofficial vote of confidence —had been a long time coming. The mini-budget announced on 23 September 2022 tanked the pound, and Truss had very few public appearances in the aftermath of the budget announcement, instead firing 50% of her most senior ministers in just one week . Her Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, also resigned after a breach of the ministerial code became public, although her resignation letter framed her departure as one of personal disagreement with the direction of Truss’ government . On top of Braverman’s resignation, Truss suspended one of her top aides, Jason Stein, after he conducted some media briefings in which he was deemed too critical of his fellow Conservatives [18,19]. This chain of events (from mini-budget announcement to mass changes in personnel) shows the speed with which Truss lost the confidence of her own cabinet and the party.
So: the timing of the vote was not good for Truss. Fracking is a historically controversial topic for the Conservatives, so it is unsurprising that in the chaotic days preceding the vote the Labour party’s motion added to the atmosphere of instability . Chaos was generated on two levels: one, that a three-line whip had been adopted (a measure usually saved for more ostensibly ‘major’ matters than a fracking ban vote); and two, that the government’s deputy chief whip sent a message to Conservative MPs declaring:
‘This is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the Government.’ 
The Climate Change Minister muddied the party messaging further when he announced (at the end of the debate) that the motion was not a confidence vote after all . Yet as late as 1.30am, journalists received information that the vote had been one of confidence all along, and that the Climate Change Minister was incorrect to suggest otherwise . The flip-flopping between the Whip, the ministers’ comments, and leaked reports of manhandling all point towards chaos within the Conservative Party. Threats of expulsion from the party if they voted against the Whip also suggest that the party initially tried to elicit a show of strength for Truss’ government. Regardless of the status of the vote, of course, Truss resigned the next day. The extent to which the fracking ban vote caused her resignation is unclear, and depends on whether the vote could be considered as a no-confidence vote. The mixed messaging, forceful whips, and changing cabinet from the mini-budget onwards all played a part in her resignation. But the leaked message from the deputy chief whip, and other reports, indicate that the vote might have been the last nail in her coffin [17,20].
What Are The Implications Of The Vote For Rishi Sunak’s Government?
As of 25 October 2022, Rishi Sunak was announced as the new Prime Minister . He declared during his first Prime Minister’s Questions (also known as PMQs), on 26 October 2022, that he would stick to the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto moratorium on fracking . However, just one week earlier Sunak voted in favour of fracking, and during the leadership race earlier in the year he stated that he would support it . Ed Miliband, Labour MP and Shadow Climate Secretary, made a similar observation regarding this disjuncture between Sunak’s rhetoric and actions, saying that the repeated changes of heart in the Conservative government meant that Sunak’s word mattered very little, and that a general election was the only logical solution .
The doubt cast on Sunak’s promises by the opposition has persisted. Even within the week that Sunak has been in power, controversy has emerged in several areas, the first among them his own appointment as Prime Minister without any formal run-off vote or general election. He also reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary despite her very recent breach of the ministerial code, and despite her deep unpopularity outside the Conservative Party . Other questionable decisions include the reappointment of Dominic Raab to the Ministry of Justice, where his last stint as a Minister resulted in the courts being closed due to a barristers’ strike . Thérèse Coffey has been appointed as Environmental Secretary, a move that has not been well received by the public. However, there may be some comfort to be found in the departure of Rees-Mogg, who claimed that he would allow fracking in his back garden .
Ultimately, the topic of fracking is being used for political currency at the moment—as Tim Loughton observed to Ed Miliband last week . Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, has said clearly that he will hold Sunak to his promise on upholding the manifesto moratorium . It is not unlikely, then, that the use of fracking as a marker of party politics may continue further into Sunak’s premiership. [8,26]. At the very least, Sunak’s latest announcement—that he will not be attending COP27 in Egypt—gives us a clear indication of his priorities when it comes to the climate crisis .
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