Analysis: Just one more hellish year to go for the government whips

No prime minister since WW2 has had to put up with such a rebellious bunch
No other prime minister since WW2 has had to put up with such a rebellious bunch for such a long time
Alex Stevenson By

As backbenchers return to Westminster for the fourth and final session of this parliament, one unnoticed trend is now crystal clear: not once since the Second World War has any other parliament seen a more rebellious bunch of MPs sitting on the government benches.

You wouldn't think so, would you? Life has gone on as normal, to a surprising degree really, under the coalition. That's partly because by tying David Cameron and Nick Clegg together at the hip their alliance has enjoyed a very large majority, on paper, of 80.

In a single-party government, such a huge inbuilt advantage would normally be sufficient for ministers to treat the Commons with disdain. In this parliament, the flakiness of its MPs have made life nightmarish for the whips. New analysis from the University of Nottingham's Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart reveals just how nightmarish: from 2010 to 2014, their number-crunching shows, 37% of all divisions have seen at least one MP rebel.

For a political system that requires the government to command a majority in the Commons in order to survive, that is a very big number. It's much higher than the 28% seen in the 2005-10 parliament, when Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown had to handle a large cohort of extremely grumpy backbenchers. According to Cowley and Stuart's predictions, even if there were no rebellions between now and the next general election you would still see a rebellion rate of 31%.

All sorts of factors have contributed to this, they tell us. The newbie MPs elected in 2010 after the expenses scandal have been unusually contemptuous of their masters. Coalition spats have obviously contributed, making it more acceptable for wavering loyalists to take the leap. The Tories and Lib Dems tend to rebel on their own issues, doubling the areas of controversy.


The last 12 months saw 31% of divisions featuring a rebellion of one shape or another. Edward Heath suffered a worse rate in 1971/2, but apart from him no-one else in Downing Street had to put up with anything like this. As Cowley and Stuart observe drily: "David Cameron and his whips have now experienced roughly this level of dissent or worse for four years."

It's remarkable, when you put it like that, that Cameron's authority hasn't taken even more of a beating than we think it has. The prime minister's attitude has been to take it on the chin; in last year's Queen's Speech debate, for example, he claimed he was "relaxed" about the amendment calling for an EU referendum law. This was not to be sniffed at, but Cameron had little choice but to accept the situation.

And then there was Syria. The most shocking defeat of Cameron's premiership so far came on a hot summer evening late last August, when the Commons won a small slice of constitutional power by defeating the government. I was in the chamber to watch that result and saw the PM's face fall as he was handed the slip of paper telling him what to say. "The British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action," he told MPs dumbstruck by what they had just accomplished. "I get that, and the government will act accordingly." You have to go back to Lord Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen and Lord North to find comparable shocks on matters affecting the military. (And Lord North, for those of you who don't know the dates of your British PMs off by heart, goes way back. American independence, not Scottish independence, was his biggest headache.)

There were other rebellions, too – the ones where the government dodged the issue by not pressing a vote, or by making critical concessions, or by permitting dubious 'free' votes because they knew they couldn't win whipped ones. Even without these, though, the message is clear.

This group of MPs haven't been prepared to blindly let themselves be ushered into whichever division lobby Cameron and Clegg want them to. Their independence has proved a welcome alternative to the usual slavish loyalty of 'on-message' MPs. It might not be good for the government, but it's excellent for democracy.

What about this year's Queen's Speech? Backbench disloyalty is bound to have been a factor in drawing up the coalition's final batch of legislation. Everything is pointing to a light package which will be easy to get through the Commons. Anything, the whips will be thinking, for an quiet life; after four hellish years, they probably feel like they've earned it.

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