Our government, led by Theresa May is being fired upon from all sides. The Labour Party accuses it of incompetency in its approach to Brexit and bemoans the handling of the NHS and cuts to public services. Meanwhile, remainers across the political spectrum claim the government is pursuing a needlessly hard and damaging exit from the EU, whilst committed brexiteers are pressuring the Prime Minister to make it harder still.
This messy national political picture was well reflected in the panel for the debate. On the Proposition in support of the motion Kyle Spencer, a third year law student and Conservative remainer, was joined by independent Devon County Councillor, Claire Wright. James Taghdissian and Matthew Burton mounted the Opposition. Taghdissian was the Exeter Conservative Party candidate in the 2017 General Election and now chairs the local party branch, whereas Burton is chairman of the Conservative Association at the university.
The Proposition’s opening position rested on two central arguments: that the government is both leading a chaotic charge in its Brexit negotiations and is following a policy programme that is leading to increased social and economic hardship. Spencer emphasised the former by claiming “A key argument advanced by brexiteers and now the government is how Brexit Britain would have its pride back, it’s place in the world back… yet day after day we seen headline after headline from CNN to Fox, from Sky to BBC reducing Britain to a laughing stock… we have had enough U-turns to make a driving instructor dizzy”. Nonetheless, Spencer was at pains to stress that his qualms weren’t with the Conservative Party but its leadership. A view likely not shared by his non-Conservative partner on the panel.
“Devon County Council’s government grant has been cut by £155 million, that’s 76% since Austerity began in 2010”
Wright’s focus was broader in emphasis. Her speech began with a blitz of damning statistics against the government. “Over 1 million people regularly using food banks, one in every 200 people now homeless in inadequate accommodation according to Shelter… Devon County Council’s government grant has been cut by £155 million, that’s 76% since Austerity began in 2010”. She also attacked how cuts in local services has been coupled by the fact that “council tax in Devon has soared by around £250 a year in just seven years for an average band E property”.
Then came Taghdissian’s robust rebuttle in defence of the government’s Brexit economic policies. On Brexit he argued that the “Brexit being pursued by the Prime Minister is an entirely sensible one. She seeks the closest possible relationship with our soon to be former European partners whilst making sure that phrase that captured so many people and their votes of ‘Take Back Control’ is honoured”. As for the government’s performance as a whole, he asked the audience “Why should we dislike a Conservative government?”. Rather than let the audience reply, he answered himself: “You shouldn’t. It’s a very good government, it’s been doing very good things for the past seven years and it will carry on doing very good things because it’s a very good government with a plan of how to change this country for the better”.
Whilst Tadhdissian chose to oppose the motion by defending the government’s policies, his partner on the Opposition did not. He preferred to rely on a bizarre mixture of caustic wit (that seemed more rude than funny) and hyperbole to advance his argument. Burton begun with an insult: “I must admit that I am rather nervous when it comes to public speaking so it’s a relief to be here so I can rely on the small audience” and went on, asking us to “imagine for one moment that this august body, this motley crew of the Friday night DebSoc regulars were to suddenly become members of the lower house, … this dark parallel universe where Got help us the DebSoc caucus has a deciding vote on a no confidence vote”. He finished by warning of the danger Corbyn’s Labour Party pose and declared: “ I have confidence in this government because I have confidence nothing else”.
In short, whether you supported or opposed the motion hinged on your views on Brexit and the government’s economic policy. And after getting past the internal squabbling between the two EUCA members on the panel and the rudeness projected towards the DebSoc audience in Burton’s opening speech, the second half of the debate saw some important issues discussed.
One question pointed out that the public are fed up with Brexit and want domestic issues such as nationwide inequality to be addressed to which the opposition replied with a degree of contradiction. Responding to this Tadhdissian argued that “there was a real attempt in the manifesto to address some of those points” – a reference to manifesto commitments such as introducing a double lock on pensions and the so-called ‘dementia tax’ to pay for social care. However, his colleague on the panel seemed to disagree. Burton stated he thought it “not worth having a debate about what policies are in one manifesto and not in the other”, preferring to restate that it’s simply a choice between May or Corbyn, and that we should choose May
“ I have confidence in this government because I have confidence nothing else”
Speaking for the Proposition, Wright argued that the problem with social policy is that the government “don’t know what else to cut… they’re spending billions on free schools but they aren’t putting the money into state schools”. She asked: “How’s that justifiable?”. Specifically, on social care she lamented the current situation by maintaining that “there have been massive cuts to social care, the NHS has had its funding squeezed… and as a result there is not enough care in people’s homes to keep up with demand”.
To close the debate Spencer spoke for the Proposition. He began with a jibe to his fellow Conservative on the Opposition: “We heard from Matthew what can probably be best described as a lengthy Christmas cracker joke: it just went on and on, you just wanted to get to the wine at the end of it”. He then begged the question why one should have confidence in a government “beholden to someone [presumably Jacob Rees-Mogg] who doesn’t believe a woman should have an abortion… transsexualism is a concept… and gay people should get married”. Tadhdissian surmised for the Opposition by affirming “the reason you can have confidence in the government as it is currently formed is that it is doing wonders for the British economy, it is negotiating a very difficult set of circumstances in terms of our departure from the EU and doing it well”.
That brought the debate to an end. Important issues surrounding Brexit, austerity and social policy both nationally and locally were successfully brought to the fore – despite the at times superfluous exchanges between certain members on the panel.
The final vote saw the motion upheld in favour of the Proposition: ‘This House Has No Confidence in Our Government’.