Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart are in the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. Follow Philip on Twitter.
Some 53 Conservative MPs, including tellers, voted against their whip.
That’s not the largest rebellion of the Parliament so far (which was
over Lords reform), or even the largest rebellion over Europe (the
revolt of a year ago, over a referendum, involved 81 Conservative MPs).
But it does make it a larger revolt than any Conservative rebellion
over Europe before 2010 – including bigger than any of the Maastricht
This was not the Government’s first Commons defeat. Even leaving aside
the issue of Lords reform (where they were not formally defeated but
withdrew the legislation in the face of certain defeat) they had
previously gone down to defeat in December 2011 on the motion that the
House had considered the economy – as a result of an old fashioned
Labour ambush, with Labour MPs hiding until enough Conservative MPs had
gone home. Defeats caused by such tactical manoeuvres are embarrassing
for the government but they do not represent a systematic problem. Last
night was the first Commons defeat caused by internal opposition, and
it is therefore much more serious.
Nor, indeed, was it Sir George Young’s first rebellion as Chief Whip.
That honour went to a rebellion by Philip Davies on a Labour Opposition
Day Motion on Policing on 24 October. Indeed, it wasn’t even Sir
George’s second rebellion. That was a revolt on 30 October by six
Conservative MPs on the Draft Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling
Circuses (England) Regulations 2012. But he won’t have lost much sleep
over those. David Cameron has had three Chief Whips. Two – Patrick
McLoughlin and Sir George Young – have been defeated in the Commons.
Andrew Mitchell is his only undefeated Chief Whip. We doubt that makes
Mr Mitchell feel much better.
This has not come from out of the blue. As we’ve been saying for
months now, this is the most rebellious parliament of the post-war era,
with a rate of rebellion easily outstripping any other Parliament since
1945. And in a broader sense, this is also evidence of an argument we
have been making for years (and which was made, before us, by Philip
Norton). Contrary to the golden ageism of received wisdom MPs have been
getting more rebellious and independent-minded in recent years, not
Ninety-eight European rebels:
But in an anyway very rebellious parliamentary party, Europe is a
particularly incendiary issue. Before last night Europe accounted for
just 5% of the Conservative rebellions so far this Parliament but 35% of
all the rebellious votes that had been cast by Conservative MPs – with
European rebellions more than double the size of the other revolts
against the whip. This was the 30th Conservative backbench rebellion on
Europe since 2010. They have so far involved 98 Conservative MPs.
There was a slightly pointless discussion last night about whether this
rebellion consisted of ‘more than the usual suspects’ (which is meant
to indicate its seriousness) or ‘just the usual suspects’ (which means
it can be ignored). We don’t especially like the phrase, but unless
one’s definition of ‘the usual suspects’ is so wide as to be pointless, a
rebellion consisting of 50 Conservative MPs cannot by definition solely
include the usual suspects. (Indeed, one reason why we don’t like the
phrase is that almost any rebellion of over, say, 20 will include
several names that people don’t automatically recognise as rebels, and
about which they get excited).
New rebellious blood:
But for the record, 48 of the 53 had rebelled on Europe already during
this Parliament, and 52 of the 53 had rebelled previously on something.
The only MP voting against his whip for the first time is James
Wharton, the MP for Stockton South. If the whips want to find some
solace, they might find it in the fact that ‘only’ 26 of the 53 rebels
were from the new intake. That’s a figure of 49%. In the (larger) Euro
rebellion of a year ago, in October 2011, 60% of the rebels came from
the new intake.
Europe, Europe, Europe:
There’s nothing exceptional about large rebellions – or even Commons
defeats. Every Prime Minister since Heath has been defeated in the
Commons at least once, as a result of their own MPs defying the
government. The problem is the nature of the issue, and especially its
persistency. Rebellions on other issues come and go; the legislation is
passed, or falls, tempers calm, the poison drains. But Europe is a
chronic ailment to the Conservative body politic; there is always a
summit, a treaty amendment, a budget, to cause the fever to return.
Tory divisions remain in the memory, Labour opportunism does not:
In one sense, comparisons with Maastricht – which Ed Miliband was keen
to make – are deeply flawed. The split of twenty years ago – between
‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘eurosceptics’ (the labels are crude, ugly, and
contested, but necessary) are now over; the new battle lines for the
Conservatives are now just between gradations of scepticism, between
hard and soft sceptics. Yet in another, probably more important, sense,
the comparison is spot on. This Sunday will be 20 years since one of
the key votes on the Maastricht Bill; the ‘paving motion’ vote – the
vote to re-start the Maastricht bill’s progress – was held on 4 November
1992. Labour’s stance then was deeply cynical. It was an issue on
which the Labour frontbench officially supported the Government. They
welcomed the Maastricht Treaty, and would have signed it too. There was
an overwhelming majority in the House for the treaty. Its ratification
should have been simple and painless. Yet despite the Labour leader,
John Smith, being avowedly pro-European, he was prepared to use almost
any parliamentary device available to drag the process out, finding
areas where his party could disagree with the Government, highlighting
the Conservative divisions. It was not, he felt, the Opposition’s job
to make life easy for the Government. Twenty years on, almost no one
remembers John Smith’s opportunism. They do remember the Conservative