Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart: Key facts on the size and nature of last night's Tory budget rebellion
Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart are in the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. Follow Philip on Twitter.
Size: Some 53 Conservative MPs, including tellers, voted against their whip. That’s not the largest rebellion of the Parliament so far (which was over Lords reform), or even the largest rebellion over Europe (the revolt of a year ago, over a referendum, involved 81 Conservative MPs). But it does make it a larger revolt than any Conservative rebellion over Europe before 2010 – including bigger than any of the Maastricht rebellions.
Systematic: This was not the Government’s first Commons defeat. Even leaving aside the issue of Lords reform (where they were not formally defeated but withdrew the legislation in the face of certain defeat) they had previously gone down to defeat in December 2011 on the motion that the House had considered the economy – as a result of an old fashioned Labour ambush, with Labour MPs hiding until enough Conservative MPs had gone home. Defeats caused by such tactical manoeuvres are embarrassing for the government but they do not represent a systematic problem. Last night was the first Commons defeat caused by internal opposition, and it is therefore much more serious.
Whipping: Nor, indeed, was it Sir George Young’s first rebellion as Chief Whip. That honour went to a rebellion by Philip Davies on a Labour Opposition Day Motion on Policing on 24 October. Indeed, it wasn’t even Sir George’s second rebellion. That was a revolt on 30 October by six Conservative MPs on the Draft Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (England) Regulations 2012. But he won’t have lost much sleep over those. David Cameron has had three Chief Whips. Two – Patrick McLoughlin and Sir George Young – have been defeated in the Commons. Andrew Mitchell is his only undefeated Chief Whip. We doubt that makes Mr Mitchell feel much better.
Ninety-eight European rebels: But in an anyway very rebellious parliamentary party, Europe is a particularly incendiary issue. Before last night Europe accounted for just 5% of the Conservative rebellions so far this Parliament but 35% of all the rebellious votes that had been cast by Conservative MPs – with European rebellions more than double the size of the other revolts against the whip. This was the 30th Conservative backbench rebellion on Europe since 2010. They have so far involved 98 Conservative MPs.
Unusual suspects: There was a slightly pointless discussion last night about whether this rebellion consisted of ‘more than the usual suspects’ (which is meant to indicate its seriousness) or ‘just the usual suspects’ (which means it can be ignored). We don’t especially like the phrase, but unless one’s definition of ‘the usual suspects’ is so wide as to be pointless, a rebellion consisting of 50 Conservative MPs cannot by definition solely include the usual suspects. (Indeed, one reason why we don’t like the phrase is that almost any rebellion of over, say, 20 will include several names that people don’t automatically recognise as rebels, and about which they get excited).
New rebellious blood: But for the record, 48 of the 53 had rebelled on Europe already during this Parliament, and 52 of the 53 had rebelled previously on something. The only MP voting against his whip for the first time is James Wharton, the MP for Stockton South. If the whips want to find some solace, they might find it in the fact that ‘only’ 26 of the 53 rebels were from the new intake. That’s a figure of 49%. In the (larger) Euro rebellion of a year ago, in October 2011, 60% of the rebels came from the new intake.
Europe, Europe, Europe: There’s nothing exceptional about large rebellions – or even Commons defeats. Every Prime Minister since Heath has been defeated in the Commons at least once, as a result of their own MPs defying the government. The problem is the nature of the issue, and especially its persistency. Rebellions on other issues come and go; the legislation is passed, or falls, tempers calm, the poison drains. But Europe is a chronic ailment to the Conservative body politic; there is always a summit, a treaty amendment, a budget, to cause the fever to return.
Tory divisions remain in the memory, Labour opportunism does not: In one sense, comparisons with Maastricht – which Ed Miliband was keen to make – are deeply flawed. The split of twenty years ago – between ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘eurosceptics’ (the labels are crude, ugly, and contested, but necessary) are now over; the new battle lines for the Conservatives are now just between gradations of scepticism, between hard and soft sceptics. Yet in another, probably more important, sense, the comparison is spot on. This Sunday will be 20 years since one of the key votes on the Maastricht Bill; the ‘paving motion’ vote – the vote to re-start the Maastricht bill’s progress – was held on 4 November 1992. Labour’s stance then was deeply cynical. It was an issue on which the Labour frontbench officially supported the Government. They welcomed the Maastricht Treaty, and would have signed it too. There was an overwhelming majority in the House for the treaty. Its ratification should have been simple and painless. Yet despite the Labour leader, John Smith, being avowedly pro-European, he was prepared to use almost any parliamentary device available to drag the process out, finding areas where his party could disagree with the Government, highlighting the Conservative divisions. It was not, he felt, the Opposition’s job to make life easy for the Government. Twenty years on, almost no one remembers John Smith’s opportunism. They do remember the Conservative divisions.