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Philip Cowley: What will the Conservative Parliamentary Party be like after the next general election?

Picture_5 Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and runs the website, which monitors backbench behaviour. This Platform piece is a version of a paper that he presented at The Centre for British Politics' recent conference on Cameron's Conservatives.  It is the third of a number of papers we are publishing from the conference.

Should the Conservatives manage to win the next general election – or even if they become the largest single party in a hung parliament – then the most striking thing about the new parliamentary party in the Commons will be how different it will be.  Even without any more retirements those that we already know about, there will be around 180 incumbent Conservative MPs fighting the next election.  To reach the 260 MPs required for minority status as the largest party, the party therefore needs at least 80 brand new MPs.  Under such circumstances, some 31% of the Parliamentary Party will be new.  Achieve the bare minimum for a majority, and some 48% of the parliamentary party will be newly elected.  Similarly, there will be relatively few MPs with experience of sitting on the governent benches.  As the largest single party in a hung parliament, just 31% will have been MPs prior to 1997; achieve a bare majority and those with experience on the government benches would amount to just 25%.

These figures are all a) rough estimates, and b) minima.  More retirements in the run-up to the election will diminish yet further the pool of experienced MPs from which the Conservatives can draw.  And in the event of the Conservatives achieving more than the bare minimum required for an overall majority, then the percentage with experience will be smaller still.  It is entirely plausible that a majority Conservative government will see over half its MPs freshly minted.

It’s already well known that many of these new MPs will be visibly different from the incumbents, with more women MPs and MPs from ethnic minorities.  The majority of the parliamentary party, though, will remain white and male, and this will be especially true at the higher levels of the government.  In one respect, however, the parliamentary party will remain very similar to previous groups of Conservative parliamentarians.  For all the talk of trying to create a parliamentary party in the image of those represented, the absence of working class MPs on the Conservative side of the House will continue.  In 2005, the Conservatives gained 25% of the DE vote and 33% of the C2 vote.  Almost no efforts have been made to ensure that this segment of the population – and of the Conservatives’ own supporters – receives representation on the Conservative benches.

This huge influx of MPs constitutes a distinctly unknown quantity, despite attempts to identify their attitudes.  Be especially cautious about attempts to identify would-be high flyers.  Many of the Labour MPs who attracted considerable media coverage in the aftermath of the 1997 result did not then go on to achieve high office, whereas those who went largely unnoticed by the national media (such as Jacqui Smith) did rather better; the media’s criteria for interest are not the same as the criteria for political success.  And some of the coverage will not be especially accurate.  There will be contemporary equivalents of the Independent journalist who, in 1997, wrote a piece on ‘left-wingers [who] slipp[ed] through Blair’s net’, naming as an example the new MP for Salford, Hazel Blears.

Trying to reconcile the demands of the newly-elected for advancement with fair treatment for the longer-serving, especially those who have worked hard for the party in opposition, will be no easy task.  Any Conservative MP who has worked his or her socks off in some unrewarding shadow role will be pretty miffed to see MPs from the new intake replacing them or shooting past them in the pecking order.  Cameron’s stated aspiration that a third of his government will be female by the end of his first term will make this balancing act even trickier.  It might not be a surprise if this particular aspiration – and it was noticeable that it was only an aspiration and not a commitment – is quietly dropped once the Conservatives reach office and reality begins to bite.

The second consequence of the mass of new MPs is, however, more positive for the party managers.  Faced with the uncertainties of a new job, and the potential for future promotion up the ministeral ladder, new MPs are noticeably less likely to defy the party whip.  In the 1997 parliament, for example, Labour’s newly-elected MPs were less than half as likely to rebel as were the longer-serving MPs.  The impact of this was also clearly demonstrated the last time the Conservatives were in government: even though the newer cohorts of Conservative MPs were then the most Eurosceptic in their attitudes, they were also the least likely to vote against the Maastricht Bill.  The realities of parliamentary life prevented any neat translation of their attitudes into behaviour – and the same will be true in 2009 or 2010.  Such new MPs will begin to rebel in time, as did most of the 1997 intake, but by the end of the 1997 parliament, after a full four years, only 28% of the newly-elected Labour MPs had voted against their whips. 

What of those already there?  In 1993, in a (supposedly) off-the-record description, an exasperated John Major referred to some of his backbench rebels as ‘bastards’.  Three years later, along with colleagues, I published a research paper entitled Blair’s Bastards: Discontent within the Parliamentary Labour Party, which set out to examine the voting behaviour of members of the Parliamentary Labour Party to see whether it was possible that any incoming Prime Minister Blair would have his own ‘bastards’.  It noted that ‘Labour MPs dissent more often than Conservatives; they dissent in great numbers than Conservatives; and they dissent on more issues than Conservatives’ – and concluded that ‘judging from their current voting behaviour, there is the real possibility that any future Labour Government will face significant backbench dissent’.  It ended: ‘While many Labour MPs are clearly ministers-in-waiting, there are also some who are rebels-in-waiting’.  The paper proved remarkably accurate at predicting which MPs would cause trouble for the leadership once Labour entered Government.  Of the 32 most rebellious MPs in the 1992 Parliament, 30 had rebelled within the first year of the 1997 Parliament; those 30 MPs constituted just seven percent of the PLP, but they made up 40 percent of those who rebelled. 

The good news for the Conservative whips is that one cannot make similarly strong claims about the current behaviour of Conservative MPs.  For although there are some signs of discontent on specific issues, overall Conservative MPs are currently less rebellious than their government colleagues, not more.  Conservative MPs are currently rebelling less often than Labour MPs (in around 11% of divisions in the first three sessions of the 2005 parliament, less than half the rate on the government benches) and they are doing so in smaller numbers; although a slightly larger proportion of Conservative parliamentarians has rebelled compared to Labour, few have cast more than a handful of dissenting votes, and even the most rebellious would not find themselves high up the PLP’s league table of troublemakers. 

That said, when it comes to backbench rebellion, past behaviour is a usually an excellent predictor of future action, and those individuals currently rebelling will almost certainly go on to be the most troublesome for the whips in the next parliament.  The current league table of Conservative rebels is headed by Ken Clarke (although his rebelliousness is somewhat inflated by very regular rebellion during the passage of the Lisbon Treaty through the Commons); Bob Spink comes second, his 23 dissenting votes all being cast before he left the party and then joined UKIP.  But of the remaining most rebellious Conservative MPs, none have yet announced they will be resigning at the next election, and they could therefore be around to cause the Conservative whips trouble in government.  Philip Davies, the most rebellious of the 2005 intake, remarked, ‘David [Cameron] is relaxed about us having different views on certain issues.’  Such a relaxed attitude may not last long in government. 

None of this is to assume that there will be much trouble early on. A common pattern in post-war governments is to see relatively little trouble early on.  Of the seven occasions since the war, when the party in power has changed (that is, 1945, 1951, 1964, 1970, 1974, 1979, and 1997), the first session has been the least rebellious of all that follow on four occasions.  Moreover, whether the first session has been the least rebellious or not, it has always been one of the least rebellious: the rate of rebellion in every first session since a change in government has never been greater than a rebellion in 7% of divisions in any post-war parliament.  David Cameron and his whips can therefore be guaranteed a post-victory honeymoon with his backbenchers.  Discontent can, however, surface soon afterwards. Edward Heath’s problems, for example, began in his second session (1971-1972) and Mrs Thatcher’s whips faced high levels of dissent – indeed the highest of her premiership – in her third session (1981-2). There may be a honeymoon but there is no guarantee that it will last very long.


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