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Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart: This Parliament remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945.

Cover_2013Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart are based in the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University. 

We’ve been producing end-of session reports on the behaviour of government MPs at Westminster for almost a decade. Last year’s was a record-breaker: Coalition MPs rebelling more often than MPs in any other session since 1945.  This morning we’ve launched the report on the 2012-13 session.  It tells a more nuanced story, but with plenty to concern the party whips:

  • There were rebellions by Coalition MPs in 61 divisions in the last session of the Parliament, covering a wide range of issues and bills, from Europe (on more than one occasion…) to House of Lords reform, from child benefit to housing benefit, and from the succession to the Crown to planning regulation.
  • As a percentage of divisions, that’s a rebellion in 27% of divisions, down from the 44% in the last session.  But it’s still relatively high for the post-war period.  It tops the comparable figure for all but nine post-war sessions.  Most of these nine are from periods of Labour government (two under Callaghan, five under Blair and Brown); the preceding session of 2010-12 aside, only one Conservative Prime Minister has experienced a session with a higher level of dissent (that is, Edward Heath), and he only experienced it for one session (between 1971-72).
  • If we break down the overall figure of 27% into its two component parts, Conservative MPs have broken ranks in 19% of divisions (down from 28% in the 2010-12 session), Lib Dem MPs have done so in 15% (down from 24% in the 2010-12 session).  (These two figures sum to more than 27%, because of some votes in which both parties have seen dissent).  So the decline in rebelliousness has been equal (down nine points for the Conservatives and nine for the Lib Dems) for both parts of the Coalition.  
  • The figure of 19% for the Conservatives alone is still higher than for all but seven sessions of Conservative government during the post-war era.  It is, for example, higher than John Major faced for all but the 1992-93 session; higher than Margaret Thatcher faced during her premiership save for the 1981-2 and 1984-5 sessions; and it is higher than the levels of rebellion faced at any point by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan or Home (save for the 1962-3 session, when it also ran at 19%).  Edward Heath faced a higher rate of rebellion in three of his four sessions in government, but overall the rate for the 1970 Parliament was 19%. In other words, even the figure for the Conservatives alone is relatively high compared to most periods of previous Conservative government. 
  • And despite the reduction in the rate of rebellion from the preceding session, the Parliament still remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945.  The rate for the Parliament as a whole (that is, 2010-13) now stands at a rebellion in 39% of divisions, easily topping the 28% seen in the 2005 Parliament.  Even if the rate of rebellion drops again by half – down to a rate of around 13% - in the remaining two sessions, we would expect the overall total for the Parliament to be 29%, still (just) enough to make it the most rebellious in the post-war era.  The good news for the whips, therefore (and right now they probably need some), is that we can report a gradual reduction in the level of backbench dissent on the Coalition side.  But the rate of rebellion in this session only appears low when compared to the unprecedentedly high levels seen in the preceding session.


  • Why’s it down? Several reasons, but a key one was the withdrawal – under fire – of House of Lords reform.  This had the effect of removing considerable combustible material from the Government’s legislative programme.  Had (somehow) that Bill gone ahead, past Second Reading, we would be reporting a considerably higher number of rebellions.
  • A total of 185 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip so far during the Parliament. Most (148) of these are Conservatives, but this is not surprising, given that there have been more Conservative rebellions and there are anyway more Conservative MPs.  The most rebellious nine Coalition rebels are Conservatives, headed by Philip Hollobone, who was also the most rebellious in the last session.  He has now voted against his whip 129 times since the election in 2010.
  • Of these 185 MPs, 144 rebelled during the 2012-13 session, and there was a very strong relationship between behaviour in the two sessions of the Parliament.  The correlation between the number of rebellions in the 2010-12 and 2012-13 sessions was 0.79. 
  • Of the 148 Conservative rebels, 90 (or six in ten) are from the 2010 intake.  Of those members of the 2010 intake who have been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament some 85% have now rebelled.  New MPs are normally relatively pliant in their early years in the Commons.  Not this lot.  And on the Lib Dem side of the Coalition once you exclude those Lib Dem MPs who are or were at some point members of the payroll vote, either as ministers or parliamentary private secretaries, and thus expected to remain loyal to the government, and there is now not a single Lib Dem MP who has been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament and who has remained loyal to the party whip.
  • The government still win most votes easily – the median majority in whipped votes this sesson was 71.  But close run things are becoming slightly more common (in its first 24 months in power the government’s majority only fell below 50 on 22 occasions; in the last twelve months it has fallen below 50 on 17 occasions).  And, crucially, David Cameron has now joined the list of Prime Ministers defeated in the House of Commons as a result of their own MPs rebelling, a line which dates back unbroken to Edward Heath.

A final fact: David Cameron has had three government Chief Whips in the Common. Two – Patrick McLoughlin and Sir George Young – have been defeated.  Andrew Mitchell is his only undefeated Chief Whip.  We doubt that makes Mr Mitchell feel much better. 


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