The era of the supercharged Tory backbencher has arrived... and ten reasons why it's likely to stay
By Tim Montgomerie
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In a world of politics when nearly everything is over-interpreted and sensationalised it's easy to get things out of proportion. Last week's rebellion of 81 Tory MPs can easily be dismissed in this context. It could be seen as another part of the insignificant noise that Stephan Shakespeare wrote about yesterday. I think it was actually a very significant moment. The plates of politics had been moving beneath the surface for some time. Last week's vote was proof that a new phenomenon has arrived; the supercharged Conservative backbencher.
I suggest at least ten key factors explain the rise of this supercharged backbencher and they are going to make it very hard for Cameron and the Government Whips to stuff the genie back into the bottle...
They are Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives: The Class of 2010 is not a bloc that thinks completely alike but as ConHome's pre-election polling suggested - and has been vindicated subsequently - this is the generation that cut its political teeth under Margaret Thatcher. It's happily signed up to Cameron's commitment to the NHS, to gay rights and to Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism. It shouldn't be caricatured but it is deeply Eurosceptic. It wants lower taxes. It believes in national defence. It wants strict control of immigration. It backs Michael Howard on prisons and crime.
There aren't enough frontbench jobs: Paul Goodman recently calculated that "as few as three male backbenchers may become Ministers at the next reshuffle". Backbenchers have done the same maths. Given the huge 2010 intake and the reduced number of ministerial posts in Cameron's gift (because of the Coalition) they have calculated that it is unlikely they'll get on to the frontbench. The numbers making this calculation will grow once Cameron has completed his first big reshuffle and that will only add to Cameron's party management problems.
Organisation: It's taken a while but groups of Tory backbenchers - particularly on the Right - are now organising. I attended one such meeting recently. A group of twenty MPs set out plans to defend the Tory manifesto and focus on the 80% of the things they agreed upon rather than the 20% of the things that separate them. They've watched the Liberal Democrats pull the Coalition to the Left for the last year and they have learnt from doing so. They're now ready to pull the Coalition in a conservative direction, especially on Europe, growth and crime.
They are the blogging generation: Blogs like ConservativeHome now connect the grassroots and Tory MPs in a way that was never true before. MPs know what the grassroots are thinking about issues like last week's EU debate and on the other side of the coin we can keep track of how they are voting. But bigger than this, the conservative blogosphere gives MPs a media that they can contribute to and in which their voices are heard. Four-fifths of Tory MPs have written for ConHome. In the era of The Torygraph backbenchers' voices were rarely heard. In the era of the blogosphere there is much more room for more voices.
Boundary changes: Many Tory MPs may face difficult reselection fights during this parliament. They want to look like MPs who put their constituents and party members first and the dictats of government whips second.
Campaigners: Perhaps the defining characteristic of the new intake is that they have had to win their seats the hard way. Until recently a large proportion of the parliamentary party occupied safe or safe-ish seats. Many of the new intake sit on marginals. They know the importance of doorstep campaigning, they know voters punish dishonest politicians and they are interested in a broader range of policy issues than a previous generation of Tory MPs. Significantly in this context many of the new MPs were never on David Cameron's A-list. They weren't 'his chosen ones'. Some don't think they became MPs because of him - but despite him.
They are marching on inadequate rations: One MP has stopped buying his coffee in Starbucks because he can't afford it. Another MP I know has stopped going to dinner clubs with fellow MPs because of the expense. Another gets his lunch at Tesco because he can't afford the new (more realistic) prices in the parliamentary canteens. Most Tory MPs have taken big pay cuts to enter parliament. Short of money they are not happy and unhappy troops have a tendency to be mutinous. Addressing this would go a long way to restoring Cameron's standing with his MPs but in this age of austerity it's also one of the hardest things for him to do.
They are the Bercow generation: This might not be the right way of describing them but the supercharged backbencher has arrived at a time when there's a Speaker who wants to supercharge them further. He calls more of their questions. He grants more special statements. In wider Coalition reforms the Select Committees are no longer chosen by whips but by MPs themselves. There's more money to be made in non-frontbench jobs. The balance of power between the executive and the backbench is changing.
They have been scandalously mismanaged: The Tory leadership hasn't set out to build a united party. It has set out very deliberately to castrate opposition to it. For many people the appointment of another liberal conservative to his inner team, the replacement of Tobias Ellwood with the ultra-loyalist Claire Perry and the replacement of Liam Fox with a non-right-winger were big reveal moments. Cameron may now realise that this 'castration' policy was a mistake and on Friday I will set out what he might do to try and put things right.