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The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

We’ve been producing end-of-session reports detailing the rebellions of government backbenchers for several years now – but we’ve never had to produce one quite so large before.  The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions is available free of charge in pdf format (at the end of this post). It details every rebellion and every rebel. How much more fun could you want on a miserable Tuesday morning? But in case you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to look at more than 100 pages of info, here’s 20 key points about the behaviour of Coalition MPs in the last session.

1.      The last session saw 239 rebellions by Coalition MPs.  This is higher than the number of rebellions by government MPs in any other session in the post-war era.  Indeed, a figure of 239 is higher than in all but three entire post-war parliaments.  And there were more rebellions in the 2010-12 session than in the period from 1945-1966 combined, taking in 21 years, six parliaments and six Prime Ministers.

2.       In relative terms, measured as a percentage of the divisions in the session, there were rebellions by coalition MPs in 44% of divisions – also without precedent in the post-war era. By party, Conservative MPs broke ranks in 28% of votes, Lib Dems MPs have done so in 24%.

3.       Even these separate figures are very high by comparison with historic behaviour of government backbenchers.  The Conservative figure is higher than the rate of rebellion by government MPs in all but eight post-war sessions.  The Lib Dem rate of 24% is higher than that seen by government MPs in all but eleven post-war sessions.

4.       And compared with behaviour in other first sessions, the differences with this session are even more obvious, especially when compared to the first sessions of parliaments following a change in government.  Between 1945 and 1997, the six sessions immediately after a change in government saw rates of rebellion between zero (1964) and 6% (1979).  The current rate of rebellion is therefore more than seven times what had until now been the post-war peak for a first session after a change of government.

5.       A total of 153 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip thus far.  Most (119) of these are Conservatives, but this is not surprising, given that there have been more Conservative rebellions and there are anyway more Conservative MPs.

6.       Eight out of the top ten Coalition rebels are Conservatives.  The most rebellious Liberal Democrat MP is Mike Hancock, whose 44 rebellious votes place him sixth. Andrew George is the only other Lib Dem MP in the top ten.

7.       As a percentage of the total number of votes, the rates of rebellion of the most rebellious MPs are very high in relative terms: Philip Hollobone has been rebelling at a rate of roughly one rebellion in every five votes.  This is a much higher rate than, say, Jeremy Corbyn or Dennis Skinner, during the Blair or Brown premierships, and represents a serious fracture from the party leadership.

8.       What will especially concern the government whips is the behaviour of their newer MPs.  Of the 119 Conservative rebels, 71 (or six in ten) are from the new intake, and between them the newbie Tory rebels have cast a whopping 401 rebellious votes.

9.       Whilst numerically smaller, rebellion is much more widespread amongst the Lib Dems.  Whereas nearly one in four (39%) of Conservative MPs have rebelled, a total of 34 Lib Dems, or 60% of the parliamentary party, have now done so.

10.   The largest rebellion came in October 2011, over a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  A total of 82 Coalition MPs (81 of them Conservatives) defied a three-line whip to vote for the motion, another 14-19 abstaining.   It was not the largest backbench revolt since 1945, but it was one of the largest, topped on the Conservative side only a handful of revolts over gun control at the fag-end of the Major government.  It was also the largest rebellion on the issue of Europe of the post-war era.

11.   The largest Lib Dem rebellion came in December 2010 over the issue of university tuition fees. Twenty-one Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their whips, a further five Lib Dem MPs abstaining. It was the largest Liberal Democrat rebellion since the formation of the merged party in 1988-89 and as a proportion of the parliamentary party constituted a larger rebellion than did the Conservative rebellion over the European referendum.

12.   Yet although the frequency of rebellions is alarmingly high, the average rebellion is small, comprising just seven MPs. (The average Conservative rebellion is eight MPs, the average Liberal Democrat revolt is even lower at just three MPs).  This is one of the reasons why the government’s majority has not yet been seriously threatened as a result of a rebellion.

13.   The other reason is that these two groups of rebels rarely coalesce.  Almost half of rebellions (46%) have seen Conservative MPs rebel alone; just over a third (36%) have seen Lib Dem MPs rebel alone, and less than one in five (18%) have seen a rebellion by both Lib Dem and Conservative MPs.

14.   This is because the two groups generally rebel on very different issues.  Just over seven in ten (71%) of Lib Dem rebellions have been on social policy (broadly defined).  But nearly half (49%) of Conservative rebellions are on constitutional policy (broadly defined). Of this last category, a big chunk (nearly one in five of all Conservative rebellions) has been on Europe (18%), rebellions which are more than double the average size of all Conservative rebellions.

15.   The size of the Government’s majority is often not appreciated.  Even its formal majority of 76 is substantial.

16.   In reality, because of divisions in which Labour vote with the government or abstain, the average majority in practice has been an even larger 123.   In the majority of votes (411), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the government’s average majority has been 86.  But when Labour abstain (50 votes), the majority averages 268; and when Labour support the government (30 votes), the average majority rises to 392.

17.   There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there are fewer on which the Labour party would be willing to join them.  Overall, 21% of coalition rebellions occurred when Labour was not voting against the government – and when there was therefore no chance of a defeat.  But that figures rises to 31% of Conservative rebellions.

18.   The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats.  Lib Dem rebellions were more likely to take place when Labour was opposing the government, but because their backbench MPs number only 35, even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

19.   Parliamentary ambushes (like the one that caused the Coalition’s only defeat in December 2011) aside, for the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has happened rarely since May 2010, and the Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only 22 occasions in its first 24 months in power.

20.   But the Coalition’s two wobbly wings will require careful handling – with plenty of issues in the immediate future that will ensure continued high levels of Coalition dissent.

Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Published inBritish Politics


  1. Leon Leon

    I read around the subject a bit and was intrigued to read of the Rice index, or sometimes the weighted Rice index, as a comparative measure of party cohesion – do you have any idea what kind of value current MPs would get on that index?

  2. Leon Leon

    I read around the subject a bit and was intrigued to read of the Rice index, or sometimes the weighted Rice index, as a comparative measure of party cohesion – do you have any idea what kind of value current MPs would get on that index?

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