Crossing the floor beckons

IT was September 3, 2019, and the UK’s House of Commons – the equivalent of the Dewan Rakyat – was in session.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party was giving a speech, a large part of it was devoted to Brexit – the impending departure of the UK from the European Union (EU).

As Johnson was speaking, Phillip Lee, an MP from his own party, nonchalantly walked across the floor of the House, and sat down on a bench occupied by MPs from the opposition Liberal Democrat Party, with Johnson continuing his speech.

For a few moments, most MPs didn’t realise Lee’s walk across the floor. As Lee sat, cheers then broke out.

With his speech drowned out by the cheers, Johnson looked to where Lee was now seated and interrupted his speech to wish his “honourable friend all the best”.

Lee’s walk was no ordinary walk. It was – in parliamentary terms – “crossing the floor”. To cross the floor in Parliament means to change sides: to leave one political party and join another.

“The expression comes from the seating arrangements in the chamber where the government party sit together on the right and the opposition sit together to the left. A change of party allegiance can literally mean crossing the floor of the House from one side of the chamber to the other.” 

In Westminster-style parliaments, “crossing the floor” is an action where a government or opposition MP changes allegiance and defects by literally crossing the floor of the parliamentary chamber to sit with the opposing side – as did Lee.

Lee’s nonchalant-turned-dramatic action meant that Johnson’s government had lost its majority in the House, meaning the prime minister then was leading a minority government – the first since 1996.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, unsurprisingly seized on the new situation as he told the prime minister: “This is a government with no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority.”

Almost a year earlier on September 17, 2018, Canadian MP Leona Alleslev did the same in the country’s House of Commons when she crossed the floor from the government benches to sit with the opposition.

So, yes, changing party’s allegiance can take the form of a short walk – literally – across the floor of the Dewan Rakyat!

This should be a much simpler thing to do than a no-confidence motion – a no less simple parliamentarial procedure. As Ravinder Singh poignantly observes: “Why must such a simple thing be mired in technicalities and procedures?” 

I would like to think, though, that a no-confidence motion is a respectful and polite way of notifying the Dewan of an MP’s intent.

Parliament is, after all, an august institution.

But Ravinder is equally right to say that “MPs should exert their right to sit where they want to sit and not allow the executive to dictate to them”.

Crossing the floor beckons. – October 17, 2020.

* Hafiz Hassan reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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