U-turns and back-bench rebellion define Cameron’s government

March 17, 2011 5:16 pm

Author:

Share this Article

CameronBy Ben Fox

Watching David Cameron perform in parliament or on TV you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was in complete control. Yet this government been a constant stream of policy U-turns and backbench rebellions it has suffered. Whether it be attempting to privatise Britain’s forests, the farce around prisoners’ voting rights, or moves to privatise NHS services the pattern is the same – ill-thought out policy followed by a belated realisation that it couldn’t be carried through and a climb-down. Who said ‘The Thick of It’ was just a TV comedy?

Moreover, neither Cameron nor Clegg seem to have control of their MPs. On prisoners’ votes the government split three ways, as it did on the tuition fee increase. On a range of issues: from health and education to justice policy and Europe, the Tory and Lib Dem MPs are a rebellious bunch.

Maybe this is a good thing. MPs shouldn’t be lobby fodder – they are accountable to their constituencies and their conscience. Labour had a band of about 20 rebels, mainly from the Campaign group, who voted against their government on a fairly regular basis. The two biggest rebellions between 1997 and 2005, where the PLP was split were over the Iraq war and tuition fees, with academy schools and foundation hospitals just behind. The government was, rightly, defeated over its proposals to increase detention without trial in the 2005-10 parliament.

But, as Nottingham University academics Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart have shown, these rebellions were nothing compared to the volume seen under the Tory-led coalition. As they pointed out in a paper taking data from May 18th to November 5th last year, the rebellion rate was 54% – almost double the previous peak of 28% under the 2005-2010 government. Let’s not forget this was before the series of votes on the EU budget, prisoners’ votes and, of course, the tripling of tuition fees.

At that point 67 Conservative MPs had defied the party whip along with 22 Lib Dems. When you consider that 22 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs are ministers or PPSs, this means that the Lib Dem back-bench consists of just 35 MPs. For 22 of them to have openly defied their government, alongside the fact that more Lib Dems have broken their party line since last May’s election than did in the previous five year means that the Lib Dem whips might as well not bother.

But I don’t think the Lib Dem figures are much of a story. Many of them didn’t and don’t want to be prop up a Tory government, especially one that is as right-wing as this administration. They also know that, with their party languishing on between 8-10% in the opinion polls, for them to retain any hope of clinging on to their seats they need to vote on principle rather than with their government and pray for a ‘Yes’ vote in the AV referendum.

So, what of the Tory rebels? Already numbering around 70 (and this figure would undoubtedly have increased if Cameron hadn’t backed down on prisoners’ voting rights), they constitute a third of the back-bench Tory party. Unlike the Lib Dems who have tended to rebel on issues like tuition fees, free schools and the VAT rise, the Tory rebels vote against their government because it isn’t Eurosceptic or right-wing enough. Virtually none of them will ever serve in this government, which leaves an already limited Tory talent-pool even smaller. A high proportion of them are from the 2010-intake. In contrast, the Labour ranks are, as you would expect from the opposition, pretty united.

David Cameron is the strongest Tory leader since Thatcher. But, in many ways, he should be in a stronger position than her. Unlike, Thatcher his personal opinion poll ratings are strong even though public dissatisfaction with the government is high and rising. He carries an aura of being in charge, but unlike Thatcher the policy U-turns keep coming, and he can’t control or command his own MPs. Unlike ‘the Lady’, Cameron is for turning.

What this means in practice is that, less than a year after taking office, the government is vulnerable on the far-right and over Europe, and vulnerable on the centre-left. If issues can be found where the Labour MPs can form an alliance with Plaid Cymru, the SNP and disaffected Tories or Lib Dems who have had enough of defending the indefensible, then the government will be defeated. And, if it is Lib Dem MPs who are the difference between defeat and victory, the government could be left mortally wounded.

Either way, with many Tories still adding their voice to the crazy idea that the Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights (an idea that, if pursued, would be a legal nightmare and probably lead to Britain having to leave the EU), and the Lib Dems spoiling for a fight over the NHS, it’s clear what the worst job in British politics is: being in the whips’ office.

Comments are closed

Latest

  • News Tory MEP claims guns were banned on “false premise”

    Tory MEP claims guns were banned on “false premise”

    Daniel Hannan, the Eurosceptic¬†Tory MEP, may not be the most popular person in the Conservative Party HQ. As well as taking a harder anti-EU line than the current leadership, he has on a number of occasions called for some sort of electoral pact between the Tories and UKIP (most recently after this year’s European elections). However, it seems that it’s not simply on EU matters that Hannan finds common cause with Nigel Farage’s party. Having long been considered on the […]

    Read more →
  • News Miliband urged to go further with his rail fare cap

    Miliband urged to go further with his rail fare cap

    Ed Miliband has been urged to go further with his plans to cap train fares and freeze prices if he becomes prime minister next year. With Labour looking to bring more attention to the energy price freeze this week, the General Secretary of the rail union TSSA Manuel Cortes has said that matching it the freeze in the rail industry would be a “vote-winner”. According to the Independent on Sunday, Cortes said: “If he gets elected we don’t want him […]

    Read more →
  • News Flint renews calls for energy price freeze as new figures show bills soar past wages

    Flint renews calls for energy price freeze as new figures show bills soar past wages

    Shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint will this week reaffirm Labour’s commitment to freezing energy bills, as a new independent study by the House of Commons library shows that prices are rising faster in the UK than almost all over developed nations. Over the past three years, electricity prices have risen by 23.5% and domestic gas prices by 33.5%. The average household energy bill has so far risen by ¬£221 in real terms, but that is expected to rise further as […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Cameron advisers trying to avoid TV debates with Miliband

    Cameron advisers trying to avoid TV debates with Miliband

    Television debates are often deemed to have been won by the “underdog”. In the recent Scottish debate, Alistair Darling surprised many by dispatching with seasoned debater Alex Salmond. At the last US election, Romney left the first debate with a resounding victory over incumbent Obama. In 2010, Nick Clegg took advantage of people expecting nothing of him, while David Cameron used the opportunity to present himself as prime ministerial. You can see, then, why the Tories’ half-a-million pound adviser Lynton […]

    Read more →
  • News Don’t underestimate Ed Miliband, David Davis warns Tories

    Don’t underestimate Ed Miliband, David Davis warns Tories

    David Davis has sent out a warning to his Conservative colleagues to underestimate Labour leader Ed Miliband at their peril. The Tory backbencher, who was beaten to the leadership in 2005 by David Cameron, told the Hull Daily Mail that just because “the media don’t like him” doesn’t mean Miliband won’t end up prime minister next year. “The media don’t like him and that translates into people picking up the same attitude. But I’m not as disparaging about Miliband as […]

    Read more →