As we saw yesterday, many Conservative MPs find themselves in disagreement with Coalition policies, because they have not seen them as Conservative friendly policies. Much of the opposition to Lords reform stemmed from principle, and from support for the Conservative party’s former position on the topic. Support for a referendum comes both from personal conviction and from the strong support for it from party members and local voters. Opposition to items like HS2 is often fuelled by local constituency pressures.
There are also personal issues that can influence people to rebel. There is certainly a strong strand of whipping which believes that patronage, the ability of the party and government to offer jobs, can be a useful way of reducing or dissipating dissent. Whilst much of the dispute has been based on a clash of ideas in grand twentieth century manner, some of it can also be explained like eighteenth century Parliaments in terms of grouping of interests. So why hasn’t patronage worked this time round?
The whips would say it is another price of the Coalition. There are fewer Ministerial jobs for Conservatives, as the Lib Dems took a good slice of them. This, however, is understood by MPs and is not the sole reason there has been so little effective use of patronage. The truth is, the patronage available has been used in a very skewed way, leading to more annoyance by a growing large band of rebels. Badly used patronage can make things worse rather than calm them down. Government has patronage that extends well beyond Ministerial jobs.
Let’s consider the patronage offered to a very small and unrepresentative group of Conservatives, that very small group of former Cabinet Ministers who still want the UK to be fully involved with the EU as it changes and becomes more powerful. Chris Patten was given the Chairmanship of the BBC, Lord Heseltine was asked to prduce a semi official report on how to grow the economy and given governemnt resources to produce it, and Ken Clarke was made first Lord Chancellor and subsequently Minister without portfolio. This use of substantial patronage on such a small group has not only upset various MPs, but has given UKIP coverage to make claims based on these appointments. It has offset some of the impact of the veto over the Fiscal Treaty and the pledge to repatriate the criminal justice powers, which pleased Eurosceptic Conservatives.
Let’s also consider the last reshuffle. No MP who had voted against the government from the new intake was allowed a Ministerial job.As more than half of them had voted against at some point, including many of the most talented with a contribution to make, it was always going to be a decision which increased the rebelliousness of MPs. If one open rebellion bans you, why not start to vote on more issues in the way you wish rather than agreeing with the Coalition whip?
It would be bad management to create a large group of people who feel they are outsiders. They have causes enough to pursue, and will do so endlessly if they feel that the management of the party does not like them and has no wish to employ them or to accommodate some of their views. Major parties are coalitions within themselves. Eurosceptic and anti Lords reform viewpoints are the predominant part of the Conservative coalition in the country, but are not properly represented in the appointments made. It is also the case that too many Ministers are still allowing officials to make appointments in the old mould, as if there had been no change of government. This undermines further the reasonable and permissible patronage a government usually wields.