Backbench revolts are in decline but party whips shouldn’t start celebrating just yet

Parliament resumes today, after the Christmas recess – and we have a rare piece of good news for the government whips. Having just updated our data on rebellions up until Christmas, we have been struck by the decline in the level of backbench revolt on the government side of the House.

The current session has been dominated by two major Conservative rebellions, one on House of Lords reform and one on Europe. In July, 91 Conservative MPs voted against the Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill. The scale of the rebellion was such that the government realised that it would not be able to win a vote on the Bill’s programme motion, and thus the legislation was dropped.  In October, 53 Conservative MPs joined the Labour Opposition in supporting a motion calling for a freezing of the EU Budget. The resulting defeat was the first Commons defeat to be suffered by the Coalition as a result of backbench dissent. David Cameron thus becomes the latest in the line of Prime Minister dating back to Edward Heath to have at least one Commons defeat inflicted on them by their own backbenchers.

But apart from these rebellions, there has been little to cause the whips too much trouble (although we are aware that this may be a little like the apocryphal question ‘apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’). There have been a total of 27 separate Coalition rebellions so far this session, which as a percentage of the total number of divisions amounts to a rebellion rate of 21%. This figure is roughly half the rate (44%) seen in the preceding session of 2010-12.  Split by the Coalition’s component parts, the Conservative rate of rebellion is running at 17% (21 rebellions out of 127 divisions) whereas in the last session it was 28%, with the Lib Dem rate even lower at 9% (11 out of 127), down from 24%.

Unlike the preceding session – which set post-war records – these are much more ‘normal’ rates of rebellion for parliamentary parties in the modern era, although they are still towards the high end.  A rate of 21%, for example, is higher than in all but 15 post-war sessions of the Commons. But it is no longer quite so exceptional: in the last 20 years, there have been eight sessions with rebellion at this rate or higher.

In total, 179 Coalition MPs have defied the whip in this Parliament thus far: 144 of these are Conservatives, 35 are Lib Dems. On the Lib Dem side of the House only one Lib Dem MP has rebelled for the first time this session – the ex-minister Sarah Tether – although on the Conservative side more than two dozen new rebels have rebelled for the first time (the majority doing so over Lords reform), bringing to 144 the number of Conservative MPs to have broken ranks since the Coalition was formed on May 2010, some 47% of the parliamentary party. Of these, 89 (or 62%) are new MPs, elected for the first time in 2010. All but one of the 10 most rebellious MPs is a Conservative.

That said, it would be wise for Sir George Young not to get too excited by this drop in the rate of rebellion. For one thing, the rate of rebellion is still high. Moreover, the decline is in large part a consequence of the large Lords Reform shaped hole in the government’s legislative programme. Were it not for the government pulling that bill, we would now be waist-deep in multiple rebellions, with another record-breaking session possible. Plenty of Conservative MPs will complain about the lack of legislation coming forward right now, as the government struggles to change the legislative agenda to compensate for the absence of Lords reform. And there’s plenty coming down the tracks with the potential to reignite things; it is striking that even having granted a free vote, the issue of gay marriage is causing real problems for the Conservative side. But when you are in trouble, you should be grateful for small mercies.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart