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

March 17, 2011 5:16 pm

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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.

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