Ambush! Defeat!

Am a bit late to this – as a result of the day job – but then I’m always less excited about defeats caused by cock-up rather than conspiracy.  And last night’s government defeat on a motion on the economy was a result of a good old-fashioned parliamentary ambush, rather than backbench dissent.  Such defeats have always occurred: even in the 1950s and 1960s, when MPs never defeated their own governments deliberately, there was still the occasional defeat caused by incompetent whipping or an opposition ambush.

Something very similar happened during the early Blair years.  In February 1999, during the passage of the Rating (Valuation) Bill, the Tory whips ordered their MPs to leave the Commons en masse. Labour MPs followed. Then, five minutes or so before the vote, more than 100 well-fed Tory MPs appeared on the horizon, ‘like something from the film Zulu’ (as one paper put it at the time).  In the event the government then – with a paper majority of 179 – scraped through by a margin of 25, but only with the help of a few Liberal Democrats.  A government with a majority of around half that is even more vulnerable to this sort of ambush.

Embarrassing it may be, and they’ll have been some red faces in the whips office this morning, but in the medium term it may not be such a bad thing for the government. Government MPs often complain about trooping through the lobbies in large numbers, and wonder why the whips can’t cut them more slack to have time away from the House. There have already been complaints from the government benches so far this Parliament along exactly those lines.

But as I said when those complaints first surfaced:

It’s easy to criticize whips for this, and suspect that they are just being bloody minded or thoughtless.  But it’s their job to get the business through; they need to have enough MPs present to cope with the possibility of an Opposition ambush; and they also need to get MPs to realize that delivering the government’s legislation is part of their job.  If you can’t secure discipline and attendance at the beginning of a Parliament, then what chance do you have when things get tough at the end, let alone during a second term?

No government would survive long without the effective management of its business and its parliamentarians – and last night was a good reminder of that fact.

Philip Cowley

The Conservative Euro revolt: 10 points to note

Oh happy days. Just when we think we’re getting a bit tired of doing this rebellions lark, along comes something like Monday’s Euro rebellion.  We knew it would be big, but we were surprised it was quite that big.  Today’s Sun has a Rebelometer, which points to: Utter Disaster.  That’s going a bit far, but not much.

So here’s ten points to bear in mind about last night’s rebellion:

1.    This has not come from out of the blue.  As we’ve been saying for months now, this is the most rebellious parliament of the post-war era, with a rate of rebellion easily outstripping any other Parliament since 1945.  Cameron had already suffered multiple rebellions over Europe in particular before Monday.  This was just the latest, and  the largest.

2.    In a broader sense, this is also evidence of an argument we have been making for years (and which was made, before us, by Philip Norton).  Contrary to the golden ageism of received wisdom – and more than one columnist who should know better – MPs have been getting more rebellious and independent-minded in recent years, not less.  This is the latest record-breaking rebellion, but it’s the latest in a long line.

3.    It was, as everyone has said (and we wonder just how they know it so confidently?), the largest Conservative European rebellion since the war, double the size of the largest Maastricht revolt.  But because it outstrips the Labour Euro rebellion that occurred in January 1978, it is also the largest European rebellion by members of any party since the war.  Indeed, as someone pointed out last night, there weren’t an awful lot of Euro rebellions before the war, so we could just as easily say: this was the largest rebellion by members of any political party over Europe since dinosaurs ruled the earth.

4.    It is not the largest Conservative or Labour rebellion on any issue since 1945 – both sides have seen larger rebellions in recent years.  But it comes pretty close.  Indeed, aside from the gun control rebellions faced by John Major in early 1997, the largest of which saw 95 Conservative MPs vote against their whips, we make this the largest rebellion to hit a Conservative Prime Minister since 1945.  From 1951 until 1974 the largest Conservative rebellion numbered 69; Margaret Thatcher then saw 72 Conservative MPs vote down the Shops Bill in 1986.  This outstrips the lot of them.

5.    It took Tony Blair six years to face a revolt this big.  Indeed, he survived his whole first term as Prime Minister without facing a rebellion of 80+ MPs – and he had far more MPs to worry about.

6.    Yes, Labour are split on this too.  But not as badly, and anyway no one cares about divisions in Opposition Parties.  During the 1992 Parliament it was Labour MPs, not Conservatives, who had been the most rebellious; even over Europe – the issue that so damaged the Major Government – it was Labour MPs who were the most divided.  No one noticed (except us).

7.    Aside from the scale of the rebellion, two things that should concern the whips.  First, one of our rules of rebellions is that they almost always end up being smaller than the figures that were initially bandied around: deals are done, favours called in, appeals to party loyalty are made. Would-be dissidents are usually bought off by a series of concessions and compromises, by their desire not to harm their own government, and (in some cases) by the lure of self-advancement.  This probably happened here, but by nowhere near enough.  In part, this will be because of the issue – it’s a difficult one to negotiate over – but also because once rebellions hit a certain size there is safety in numbers, as happened over Trident in 2007.  But it’s also because there was no mood for compromise on the part of the rebels.  There is a Masada-like tendency developing on the Conservative benches that should worry the government’s business managers.

8.    Our second rule is that just like domestic arguments between husband and wife, disputes between front and backbenches are almost never just about the issue being argued over.  This rebellion was about Europe, but it wasn’t just about Europe.  It was also evidence of the broader frustrations on the Conservative backbenches.  That came across strongly in many of the speeches, evidence of a lack of trust, of respect.

9.    We have some sympathy with those who argue that the government should have made this a free or semi-free vote, and allowed MPs to let off steam, rather than whip it.   But that was hardly a pain-free option.  How big would the pro-referendum vote have been in that case?  100? 150? 200?  Does anyone really think that having rallied, say, 150 MPs to his cause, David Nuttall would have decided that he’d had his fun and then kept schtum about the issue for the next few years?  If the whip had been relaxed, then all of today’s headlines would be about how almost the entire backbench had told Cameron where to go, and all those writing pieces about how the Prime Minister had mishandled the affair would merely be writing different pieces on how he had mishandled the affair.

10.    We’ll be publishing a more nerdy analysis of the voting later today.  But here’s one finding for now.  Of the 81 Conservative rebels, a massive 49 were new MPs, elected in 2010.  Another of the normal rules of rebellions is that newly elected MPs can more easily be kept onside.  Not this lot.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Conservative divisions over Europe: we told you so

The parties’ contrasting policy shifts over ‘Europe’ during the last 30 years – Labour moving from opposition to support, the Conservative going in the other direction – is well understood.

What is less well appreciated is that the issue is no longer the prime example of party division that it once was. There is still a division within Labour, but the Parliamentary Party has become more united in a ‘pro-European’ direction than it used to be. In contrast, whilst there is still division within Conservative ranks – one which will be displayed during Monday’s vote on a referendum – the nature of that split has altered beyond recognition.

The old division – between Conservative ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘Eurosceptics’ – is now over. When Mark Stuart and I analyzed behaviour during the votes over the Lisbon ratification, we could identify fewer than half a dozen of the old pro-European Conservative MPs; even in the Lords this group, while impressive in terms of pedigree, was easily contained. The new battle lines for the Conservatives are between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sceptics.  But as we noted then, writing in 2010: ‘these divisions are relatively easy to mask in Opposition…but will be much harder to deal with in Government’.

And so it has proved.  Since May 2010, there have already been 22 Conservative rebellions over the issue of Europe.  They make up 19% of all the Conservative backbench rebellions, but – more worryingly for the whips – they account for some 39% of all the dissenting votes cast against the Conservative whip.  That’s because they have been on average double the size of the average Conservative rebellion.  Even before Monday’s vote the issue has already triggered several rebellions of 20+ and 30+ Conservative MPs, including one of 37.  Between them, these 22 revolts have involved 64 Conservative MPs, exactly half from the 2010 intake.

More on this to follow, as Monday’s vote approaches.

Philip Cowley