There have now been four occasions when a Commons debate and vote has decisively changed Coalition policy and actions and one when a letter signed by 81 Conservative MPs changed the government’s approach. It shows that this Parliament is a stronger Parliament than its last few predecessors, willing to challenge and if necessary defeat the government. We need to ask why this is happening. There are lessons for government, for Oppostion and for everyone else interested in the evolution of our democracy.
On 24th October 2011 81 Conservatives voted for David Nuttall’s amendment seeking an EU referendum, with 19 more abstaining. The pressure for a referendum from Conservative MPs finally resulted in the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech and the offer of a referendum should there be a majority Conservative government next time.
On 10 July 2012 91 Conservative MPs voted against Lords reform, in a rebellion against coalition policy led by Jesse Norman. In August the government announced it was dropping its Lords reform Bill.
On 31 October 2012 53 Conservatives supported Mark Reckless’s amendment to cut the EU budget. Labour also voted for his amendment, and the government was defeated. The Prime Minister then successfully negotiated a reduction in the EU budget.
On 5 June 2013 Andrew Bridgen sent a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 81 Conservative MPs urging him to hold a debate and vote before making any further commitment to Syria. The Prime Minister accepted this advice.
On 29th August 2013 31 Conservatives voted against the government’s motion on Syria with Labour, defeating the government after it had in effect accepted it had no majority for military action and would not be bringing forward a second vote to approve a missile strike as required by the amended motion.
This pattern of rebellions against the recommended line of the whips is unusual. Firstly, the rebellions bring far more MPs to vote against the government than in previous Parliaments. Secondly, they tend to be on the really big fundamental issues. Thirdly, they are not made bitter by personal rivalries or by people seeking to become leader. Fourthly, each one has been organised by a different MP. Everyone has been organised by an MP of the 2010 intake, not some former rival of Mr Cameron . The Syria vote did not require a leader, as there was no amendment or rival motion involved. Nick de Bois, the Secretary to the 1922 Committee and a member of the 2010 intake, was one of the more active in the media on it. Fifthly the personnel varies considerably depending on the issue. It’s not just a hard core of anti leadership people. Sixthly, the 2010 intake, whipped more energetically than more experienced MPs, is usually half the rebellion, reflecting their proportion of Conservative MPs overall.
I think much of this behaviour can be put down to the coalition. Too many talented Conservative MPs are free to think their own thoughts. They think the coalition has not pushed through enough Conservative measures and they remain truer to the Conservative Manifesto they fought on. The EU is the biggest source of disagreement, as most Conservative MPs want a new relationship with the EU as soon as possible, and deeply resent the continuing increase in EU powers and laws, as more Directives and court judgements rain down on us.
The Syrian motion brought out some surpising rebels. Fiona Bruce, Tracey Crouch, Anne Marie Morris, Phillip Lee would not be head of most people’s lists of likely rebels. When usually loyal representatives of the middle of the Conservative party feel they have to help vote down the government, it should be time for a rethink on how whipping works and policy is formed and approved.
The modern Conservative party wants its Ministers and leaders to work with it, to persuade, to listen, to discuss. Most sensible MPs know that if MPs treat every vote as a free vote and object to anything that might be unpopular, you end up with anarchy. The party which opposed the Syrian war strongly, has given the governemnt good majorities so far for the Lobbying Bill, even though there are criticisms of it flying from both sides.
Anyone wishing to get a measure through this Parliament has to remember the arithmetic. If the coalition speaks for both its parties, they have a good majority. If coalition ministers agree with Labour’s line they have a majority, regardless of Conservative backbenchers. If Labour votes with rebel Conservative backbenchers on a measure Conservative MPs do n ot regard as sensible, they have the majority, as the larger rebellions see more than 50 Conservatives in disagreement with the government.