Spare a thought for Patrick McLoughlin. As Chief Whip in a newly-elected government, he should have had a relatively easy time over the last year. The first sessions of parliaments are usually fairly quiet affairs for party managers. With the government basking in election victory, and implementing its manifesto, there is usually little trouble. Instead, McLoughlin has experienced record levels of dissent, from both wings of the coalition.
One thing that we might have expected would have helped him was the massive turnover in MPs at the 2010 election. As Byron Criddle noted in his chapter in The British General Election of 2010, more than a third of the Commons was newly-elected, and on the Conservative side of the House it was almost 50 per cent. Such MPs are usually less troublesome than their more experienced colleagues. Faced with the uncertainties of a new job, and the potential for future promotion up the ministerial ladder, newly elected MPs are usually less likely to vote against the party whip. During the first Blair parliament, for example, the fresh-faced Labour MPs were almost half as likely to defy the whip as the old lags.
Yet one of the factors explaining why McLoughlin’s been having such a difficult time is that this no longer seems to be true. As of late-March, 26 per cent of the ‘new’ Conservative MPs had rebelled. The figure for the older MPs was 25 per cent. For the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition some 70 per cent of the newer MPs had rebelled, compared to 44 per cent of the old hands.
So, in each case, rather than being less likely to rebel the newer MPs were more likely to have defied the party whips. Now, these are fairly raw figures, and they don’t take into account which MPs are in government and thus bound by collective ministerial responsibility to support the government. For obvious reasons, these are more likely to be the more experienced MPs; this is an especial problem with the Lib Dems where there are now very few backbench MPs – new or more experienced – who have not rebelled.
But, just for comparability, the figures for the 1997 Parliament – when New Labour came into power – were 28 per cent for ‘new’ and 54 per cent for ‘old’, a clear difference which appears no longer to exist.
Note as well that these are figures for the entire 1997 Parliament. Within a year of the coalition, the comparable figures – if we group Conservatives and Lib Dems together – are 29 per cent ‘new’ and 29 per cent ‘old’. In other words, the current tranche of new MPs are already more likely to have broken ranks than the 1997 cohort did in the entire four years of that parliament.
The most rebellious of the new intake are almost all Conservatives, not surprisingly given that there are almost fifteen times more new Conservatives than Lib Dems. Nine out of the top ten most rebellious new coalition MPs are Conservatives, and 17 out of the top 20. The list is currently headed by David Nuttall (Bury North), who is by far the most rebellious of the new intake; he is followed by Mark Reckless, Andrew Percy, Zac Goldsmith, and David Ward, the last of whom is the most rebellious Lib Dem newbie. None should be expecting invites to the whips’ office for a drink any time soon.