‘Prediction is very difficult’, said Niels Bohr, ‘especially if it’s about the future’ – and it’s always potentially embarrassing when you revisit things you wrote and in which you had confidently predicted what was to come.
Take, for example, this 2009 article, looking at the likely state of the Conservative Parliamentary Party after the election.
It argued the party would look very different: lots of new MPs, more women, more from ethnic minorities, although no less middle class than before. That was at least right, if fairly easy to predict. It went on to argue that in the short term this would be good for the whips, because new MPs are less rebellious, but that balancing their demands with those of the more established MPs would cause problems of party management. That was (at best) only half right, with the new MPs being far more rebellious than expected.
It also argued that there was a group of existing rebellious Conservative MPs whose behaviour was unlikely to change, and of those it identified almost all have indeed continued to cause trouble for the whips (save for the most rebellious of the lot, Ken Clarke, who finds himself in the Cabinet – but let’s see how long that lasts…). And it argued that whilst there would be backbench trouble ahead, there would at least be a short honeymoon. That one proved almost completely wrong; the honeymoon was so short as to be non-existent.
When it came to the issues that might trigger discontent, it argued that predicting which issues would cause difficulties for in government was ‘a bit of a mug’s game: too much depends on the circumstances in which legislation is introduced, how it is handled by ministers and so on’. But it argued there ‘are several issues where at least the potential for trouble is clear’, of which ‘the most obvious’ was Europe. So, again, correct, if fairly obvious.
The other area highlighted was issues ‘such as abortion, Lords reform and homosexuality’. Whilst not traditionally high politics, these issues can often be defused at least in part by allowing backbenchers to vote as they please, but as the example of fox hunting showed after 1997, such issues can matter to backbenchers more than some traditionally important ones. And (as the 2009 piece noted), based on their voting thus far, ‘David Cameron, and especially George Osborne are much more socially liberal than much of their parliamentary party, and that split will need to be handled carefully’.
Abortion has already caused some headaches. The vote on gay marriage – which has been promised before the next election – will be another good test of this thesis. Whilst the Conservative Party’s relationship with the issue of gay rights is more complicated than it first seems – as the excellent new book Tory Pride and Prejudice shows – the stance of the majority of Conservative MPs over the last few years has been predominantly hostile to moves to liberalize the law, whenever they’ve been given a chance.
In March 2007 for instance, 85 Conservative MPs voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which brought into force provisions for gay adoption. This dwarfed the 29 Conservative votes for, on a free vote, which included David Cameron.
It is true that the majority of those Conservative MPs to vote – again on a free vote – backed the Civil Partnership Bill itself in 2004 at both Second and Third Reading, but on a lowish turnout in both cases, and when it came to the detail of the bill many dug their heels in. By Third Reading, the division was 43 Conservatives for, 39 against, with the rest absent. Our suspicion is that there will also be a lot of convenient absences over gay marriage.
Much will depend on how the mass of new MPs behave. Conventional wisdom is that they are more socially liberal than those they replaced. Maybe so, but by how much? One other point made in that 2009 paper is that it is not easy to read directly across from attitudes claimed when outside the Commons to those inside, and we’ve so far had relatively little hard evidence on which to judge claims about the new intake. There have been just over 40 free votes since the 2010 election, but many have not been on issues that would provide much or any insight into how the new MPs will vote on an issue like gay marriage. Until they vote, like everyone else, we’re just guessing.