A rebellion is in effect any attitude or vote of an MP or group of MPs that the leadership of the party does not agree with. Sometimes it only becomes clear to an MP after the event that what he has said or backed is rebellious. On other occasions the MP clearly knows the official position, has no reason to think it is going to change, but wishes to express disagreement so he rebels.
The decision of a group of MPs to write to the Prime Minister backing the Select Committee Report on UK sovereignty did not intend to be a rebellion. It was well meant advice of the kind MPs are paid to give, urging the government to a future action apparently in line with the policy of greater UK democratic control they have set out. It only becomes a rebellion if the government condemns it out of hand and escalates the disagreement with counter measures tabled for votes.
A party leadership has several ways in which they can minimise the number and size of rebellions:
1. Avoid provocative decisions and requests to their MPs. A party is more likely to breed rebellion if it is trying to do things or change things. Where it wishes to do so it is best if the change is very clearly in line with the last Manifesto, or in line with the principles and values of the party. There is always more likely to be trouble where a governing party decides to do something which is against the party’s instincts and was not argued about in the previous election.
The big past rebellions have been over entry into the EEC and the Maastricht Treaty on the Conservative side. This Parliament has seen large rebellions over the Syrian war, an increase in the EU budget and Lords reform, three things Conservatives did not want to see and were not in the Manifesto. Conservative MPs remember Mr Cameron saying before the election that there was no consensus on Lords reform or desire to do it this Parliament. They also supported the idea of curbing public spending, so naturally wanted the EU budget cut and an expensive new war avoided.
2. Where the government and leadership do wish to make changes they need to seek to carry the party with them by explaining and consulting before launching the policy as a fait accompli.
3. Where backbenchers wish to amend legislation or make their own proposals in motions or bills, the government can seek to find some good in them rather than seeking to dismiss or defeat them. If a backbencher’s proposal merely seeks to take the government further in a direction it says it wishes to travel, there is a lot to be said for accepting the amendment, or proposing a counter amendment that moves some distance in the direction the backbencher seeks. Where the backbencher is against the stated policy and principles of the party then of course it needs to be voted down.
4. Allow more free votes. The Conservative MPs who voted against gay marriage were not rebels. They were exercising their conscience in a free vote in a different way to the leadership. Where an issue does not split on party lines, like gay marriage or abortion there is every reason to allow free votes to decide it.
5 Where MPs seek to put something on the agenda which the government does not want on the government can quite often keep it off. If there is considerable public pressure behind the MPs requesting it, and/or if events are going to force the government to come to a view and decision anyway, then the government cannot cimply avoid it. The EU is such a perpetual issue. Public concern about EU policies on borders or energy is going to be high, and there are endless action points thanks to the activist approach of the EU. Such matters cannot be delayed or buried. Others can.