Last night’s massive rebellion by 91 Conservative MPs broke four records. It was – as many have pointed out – the largest Commons rebellion to have hit the coalition since 2010, topping the 81 Conservatives who defied the whip in favour of a referendum on the EU in October last year.
It was also the largest rebellion on the issue of Lords reform in the post-war era, almost double the 47 Labour MPs who voted against Richard Crossman’s white paper on the subject in 1968.
But perhaps most impressively, it was also the largest rebellion by Government MPs on the Second Reading of any Bill in the post-war period, easily outstripping the 72 Conservative MPs who voted against the Shops Bill in 1986 or the 72 Labour MPs who voted against the Higher Education Bill in 2004.
If the government wants silver linings, it might point out that there have been bigger revolts before. The Blair government suffered larger rebellions, over both Iraq and the renewal of Trident. It could even point out that this was not the largest rebellion by Conservative MPs in the post-war era – John Major suffered worse over gun control, one of which saw 95 Conservative MPs voting against their whip. But to pray Iraq in aid is maybe not quite so wise. And measured as a proportion of the parliamentary party, last night’s 91 Conservative MPs represented a larger proportion of Cameron’s parliamentary party than did the 95 gun control rebels of Major’s. So that makes the fourth record: the largest Conservative rebellion of the post-war era measured in relative terms.
By pulling the programme motion in the face of certain defeat, we can also be pretty sure the government avoided achieving a fifth rebellion record yesterday, with what would have been the largest rebellion on a programme motion since the procedure was introduced in its present form).
Of the 91 Conservative rebels, 67 (or 74%) had form from the previous session – what itself had been the most rebellious session of the post-war era – but that leaves 24 new rebels. Of these, 16 come from the new intake of MPs, including two who left their positions as PPSs in order to vote against the whip. Perhaps of greatest concern to the Government will be the fact that of the 91 rebels, 47 (or 52%) came from the 2010 intake of MPs.
As well as the 91 Conservative rebels, there were also 26 Labour opponents of an elected Second Chamber, a mixture of old-style abolitionists and Blairite believers in maintaining the status quo. Eight DUP MPs and one independent Unionist, Sylvia Hermon also voted against Second Reading. But as we have long argued, no one really cares about splits in opposition parties; all the focus is on the government.
The vote was won by 462 votes to 124, a whopping majority of 388. But it wasn’t the outcome of the vote that counted. The withdrawal of the programme motion by the Government avoided certain defeat, and bought the Coalition some time. But the problem hasn’t gone away. Attempting to legislate on this subject without control of the timetable can prove disastrous, as the Wilson government found out in the 1960s.
The Tory rebels seem a pretty immovable bunch.