By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the groups of Tory MPs continues with a look at a pioneering Eurosceptic group which helped backbenchers cause significant headaches for Prime Minister John Major during the early 1990s. The Bruges Group is a well-established forum for advocating looser ties with Brussels, and it has gone from a relatively small collection of Tories to one of the groups that best represents mainstream Conservative thinking on its particular policy area.
Origins of the group
The Bruges Group was founded in February 1989 to promote and uphold the ideas Margaret Thatcher expressed in her famous Bruges Speech in late 1988. Mrs Thatcher argued that the tide of opinion on the continent was towards centralising the structure of the European institutions - and this would be unsuitable for Britain's national identity and democracy. In the most famous passage of the speech, Mrs Thatcher said:
"I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world. But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy. ... We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."
The group was set up by Patrick Robertson and Lord Harris of High Cross, ie Ralph Harris, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs from 1957 to 1988. Lord Harris' work promoting free-market economics at the IEA was instrumental in the creation of Thatcherism.
11am: Also delighted to report that Charles Barwell, President of the National Conservative Convention, has received an OBE. He writes about it on his blog.
By Tim Montgomerie
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The rest of Britain is focused on the welter of honours for Britain's Olympians but ConHome's focus is on the politicians who've been recognised. We therefore congratulate two Tory MPs - Eurosceptic backbencher and civil liberties campaigner Sir Richard Shepherd and former Whip and headteacher Dame Angela Watkinson.
Other big political names to be honoured include former Labour Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. She becomes a Dame. Cherie Blair is awarded a CBE for her charitable work and her campaigning for women's equality.
The BBC reports other political honours:
"Among other elected politicians to be recognised is former Eastenders actor Michael Cashman, Labour member of the European Parliament for the West Midlands and founder of gay rights group Stonewall, who becomes a CBE. A CBE also goes to Roger Williams, Lib Dem MP for Brecon and Radnorshire. Among those made OBEs are Annette Brooke, Lib Dem MP for Mid Dorset and Poole, and Christopher Fraser, who stood down as a Tory MP at the last election. George Kynoch, ex-deputy chair of the Scottish Conservatives and Andrew Wiseman, chair of the Lib Dems Federal Finance Committee, are also similarly honoured while Conservative MEP and businessman Malcolm Harbour becomes a CBE for his services to the UK economy. Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem member of the London Assembly, becomes an MBE."
By Matthew Barrett
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The Daily Mail this morning reports on the 118 Conservative MPs who have written to constituents indicating their opposition to gay marriage proposals. The Mail says "Their opposition has been expressed in letters and emails sent to constituents who have contacted them with their own concerns", and points out that if these MPs voted against proposals, it would constitute the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times. However, Equalities Minister (and Secretary of State for Culture) Maria Miller pointed out on Twitter that since any vote on the issue would be a free vote, it would not technically be counted as a rebellion.
I have listed the MPs from the Mail's story below.
By Matthew Barrett
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Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of the University of Nottingham have released a new pamplet - "The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions", which documents the 239 backbench rebellions so far in this Parliament, in which 544 votes have been held.
The pamplet takes us from the first rebellion, on the government’s control of time in the Commons, to the last, on Sunday Trading during the Olympics. This Parliament has seen more rebellions by government MPs than in any other session in the post-war era. As "The Bumper Book" says, "It comfortably beats the previous record of 128, held by Conservative MPs in the 1971-72 session. Indeed, a figure of 239 is higher than all but three entire post-war parliaments."
In fact, there were more rebellions in the last two years than there were between 1945 and 1966 - a period which saw six Prime Ministers and six parliaments. On a different measure, the "relative rate of rebellion", this session's 239 rebellions constitute a rebellion by Coalition MPs in 44% of divisions, which is a record in post-war parliaments. The 44% figure can be broken down further: Conservative MPs have rebelled in 28% of votes, while Lib Dems have rebelled in 24% of votes.
It is also notable how much of a contrast there is between the 2010-12 session and most first sessions in a parliament. As the pamplet says: "The rebellion rate for coalition MPs collectively is way above all other first sessions in the post-war era (the previous record was 28%, for Labour MPs in the 2005-6 session, as the party entered its third, and most troublesome, parliament under Tony Blair)".
By Paul Goodman
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Last year, the Prime Minister flew to Brussels amidst rumour of a leadership challenge if he didn't achieve at least a token repatriation of power.
Today, he faced the Commons not only with no such repatriation realised but with his veto - so rapturously greeted at the time by Conservative MPs - arguably valueless, since it's now clear that he won't challenge the principle of the EU institutions being used to enforce the F.U agreement.
Yet there was no mass revolt from his backbenches, and no revival to date of the leadership challenge rumours. What explains this change in the Tory atmosphere? I hope to explore the question in detail soon, but will for the moment rest with an answer I've cited before.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Last night at least 32 Tory MPs (listed below) voted with Labour against an 88% hike in Britain's contribution to the IMF. The hike is to partly fund the IMF's ability to fund bailouts. I write "at least" because I've only quickly scanned the voting list. Please email email@example.com if I've missed anyone off the list.
The Government won the vote to increase Britain's contribution from £10.7 billion to £20.15 billion by 274 votes to 246. This is the first time that the Labour frontbench has voted with Tory Eurosceptics. Labour was voting against an increase in the IMF subscription that was largely agreed during Gordon brown's time in office.
On his blog John Redwood suggests that the 29 rebels are only one sign of Tory discontent. Given that there are more than 300 Tory MPs he calculates that AT LEAST 80 Conservatives were unavailable, abstained or voted against the government. He writes:
"Some of us want the UK government to use the influence it says it has at the IMF to halt the futile bail outs of Eurozone members. The debt markets show the markets do not believe that Greece can repay all its debts in full and on time. Yesterday was a day when market worries spread beyond Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Italy. Those in charge of the Euro scheme need to get a grip. It is doing a great deal of financial and economic damage, and they no longer seem to be in control of their project. The IMF should decline to bail out rich countries that have shackled themselves to a currency scheme that was badly put together and needs a thorough re think."
"The decision to raise our IMF subscriptions by 88 percent was first mooted when Gordon Brown was in charge – but was okayed by the current government last October. While Canada, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium all managed to keep the increase in their subs low, whoever negotiated the deal on our behalf seems to have preferred to have UK taxpayers assume greater debt liabilities so that they could sit on a bigger chair at the various international summits they attend on our behalf. Alongside fiscal policy and monetary policy, our approach towards the bailouts and the IMF shows that there has been remarkably little change in economic policy at the Treasury since Gordon Brown was in charge."
By Tim Montgomerie
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Over on the NottsPolitics blog Professor Philip Cowley underlines the rebelliousness of backbench Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs since the formation of the Coalition. This graph confirms that this is the most rebellious intake since the second world war:
Jonathan Isaby has produced his own list of top rebels. Professor Cowley has done the same:
Read Cowley's full blog.
Conservative MPs lined up yesterday to oppose Labour's plans for a £80m referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system for electing the House of Commons. Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve led for the Conservatives.
Richard Shepherd on how AV elects the least objectionable candidates: "I know that the Prime Minister has abolished boom and bust, and I now know that he wants to reform our voting system, but let me make an observation. The first-past-the-post voting system goes back to before time almost. It was the way by which, in ancient societies, in a one-vote system, the individual who had the most votes came first. It was the most simple rubric for determining who should be elected. That is how things were, but there has been a reversion. I am told that the Liberal Democrats support the money resolution and the purposes behind it. They have forgotten the advice of Lord Jenkins in his commission’s report. The system that we are debating cannot be said to be an equal or proportionate system any more than the first-past-the-post system can. It therefore means that the least-objectionable candidate is elected."
John Gummer protests at the £80m cost of a referendum on AV: "My constituents do not have the wherewithal to keep our current systems going, because the Government have taken money from the national health service and local government and spread it elsewhere in order to distribute it to their heartlands. It is therefore a scandal to talk to my constituents about £80 million, and they will not forget it at the election. More importantly, the neighbouring constituencies, which are very marginal, will certainly not forget it. They will return to this House people more willing to care for the public finances."
Dominic Grieve says £80m would fund 15 rape crisis centres: "I do not know where the £80 million is supposed to come from, but on my calculation it would pay for the prison places needed to scrap the early release scheme, which the Secretary of State says is so important to him; it would fund 15 rape crisis centres, if that is what he wants to do out of the justice budget; and it would enable him to drop the disgraceful policy of refusing to meet the legal costs of acquitted defendants who do not enjoy legal aid. All those things could be done, and I have to say to him that that would be money much better spent."
Patrick Cormack says the debate is all about Labour wooing the Liberal Democrats: "The motion not only illustrates the prodigality of the Prime Minister—with his busted reputation for financial acumen, which went down the drain a very long time ago—but shows that the Government have no place in their affections or regard for Parliament. They are thrashing around like a dying tyrant, seeking to use their majority to take the public eye off the things that really matter and, perhaps, to save their skins in what they think might become a deal in the future—we remember the Lib-Lab pact, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with those who might come to their aid and succour."
In his main contribution, Dominic Grieve notes that the left-wing blogosphere oppose AV: "The best starting point would be for the Secretary of State to take a short absence from the Chamber to look at the excellent blog site run by his son, Will Straw, on which there has been extensive polling in left-of-centre areas of radicalism about these proposals. No more than 20 per cent., he has concluded, support the alternative vote proposed by the Government and 29 per cent. want no referendum at all. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn, particularly from a left-of-centre blog, that the vast majority of the remainder want such disparate things that it is impossible to assess what they desire. I think that the Secretary of State would have done rather well to have considered that blog first."
Dominic Grieve says that few voters want the paralysis of PR: "In my constituency—I make this point also in the context of the Liberal Democrats—I get very few representations about changing the electoral system. I suspect that the same is true for many hon. Members. The more that people study proportional representation systems, including purist systems such as that in Israel, the more they must conclude that such systems saddle countries with impossible legislatures, that no proper governance can be carried out under them and that they bring inertia. For those reasons, PR does not commend itself to me."
Mr Grieve on AV favouring Labour: "The alternative vote system would have delivered more seats than the first-past-the-post system for Labour in 2005, even though it only gained 36 per cent. of the popular vote. That seems to me to be a very poor starting-point for change in that direction."
Frank Field highlights another unfairness of AV: "What worries me about the proposals that we are debating is that it is not difficult to imagine some of our colleagues initially being clear winners against three or four other candidates, but, through a process of elimination, losing their seats because the votes eventually go to the runner-up. There is a terrible illogicality in having a system in which a candidate can have a clear lead in the first-preference votes, but in which the second or third-preference votes become equal to the first-preference votes in further stages of the counting. Clearly, those other votes are not equal to the first-preference votes; if they had been, people would have voted differently in the first place."
John Redwood corrects the idea that the Conservatives use AV in internal leadership elections: "Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives seem keen to say that we use the alternative vote system for our internal party elections, but we do not. The system used for our leadership election is the progressive rounds model, under which one candidate drops out at each stage, with everyone being given a vote on the remaining candidates. That could not conceivably be adopted for general elections, as having six or seven candidates at the start would mean that the election would take about three months. The electorate would get bored, and the costs would be massive."
Grieve quotes Ken Livingstone's opposition to AV: “Many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first-past-the-post because the AV alternative is even worse…Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties.”
Over on his blog Douglas Carswell MP has published his motion of no confidence in the Speaker and the list of supporting MPs:
There is talk that the Commons may not even debate the motion. That would be a mistake. The issue needs to be resolved one way or the other.