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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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