Chris White was Special Adviser to Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Chief Whip (2009-2012), as well as to Rt Hon Andrew Lansley (2012-14) and Rt Hon William Hague (2014-15), both Leaders of the House. He is now Associate Director at Bellenden Public Affairs.
The unexpected victory for the Conservatives took many by surprise, but there was no doubt a welcome sigh of relief by many MPs as they realised they no longer have to work with the Liberal Democrats.
Five years of Coalition Government was hard work if you were a Conservative. First, there many things that we had to jettison due to the Lib Dem veto, such as the abolition of the Human Rights Act, an EU Referendum and reforming the unfair constituency boundaries. Second, whilst the Coalition Agreement set out the programme for government, it was evident that it was more of a basis for further negotiation by our Liberal Democrat colleagues to see what else they could extract as the price for their support. Whilst relations between the two whips’ offices were good, time and again we would find an agreed position would pass through the Commons, only to find that Nick Clegg was ‘unable’ to control his peers, forcing further concessions out of the Conservatives.
There is now eager anticipation that with the Lib Dem anchor jettisoned, the Conservatives will now be able to implement many of these vital reforms. However, as with most things in life, nothing is that easy.
The Coalition Government had a working majority of 83 at the start of the Parliament, and 73 at its end as it was whittled away due to by-elections and defections. The excellent new Chief Whip Mark Harper will look wistfully at that Coalition majority, faced with a working majority of 16 once you take account of the four Sinn Fein MPs and Deputy Speakers. The best case scenario might see the Conservatives negotiate on a vote by vote basis with the 8 DUP and 2 UUP MPs, leading to a slightly more comfortable majority of 36, though their support will come at a price.
The reason for concern in Number 10 will be that the last five years were the most rebellious of any Parliament in the post war era. According to Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, Coalition MPs rebelled in an astonishing 35 per cent of divisions, easily beating the previous record of 28 per cent, held by the Blair/Brown government from 2005-2010.
But delve into the statistics in more detail and it reveals a worrying trend. For the Conservative majority to be threatened, only nine Conservative MPs would need to rebel in order for the new Government to be defeated if every MP turned up to vote. In the last Parliament, this happened on 84 occasions on a three line whip. It’s easy to see that if this continued it might threaten the new Government, not just from the right, but also from the left of the party, with Dominic Grieve and David Davis already challenging the planned repeal of the Human Rights Act.
And if you thought the Commons is going to be difficult, spare a thought for Baroness Stowell, the Leader of the House of Lords. The numbers there are even more challenging, with 224 Conservative Peers up against the combined might of 213 Labour, 101 Lib Dem, 178 crossbenchers and 63 others. The Coalition was defeated in the Lords on 103 occasions, so with the Lib Dems now free of the shackles of coalition that could well increase. It has been argued that the Salisbury convention will apply, where the Lords will not oppose manifesto commitments, but given the increasing will of the Lords to flex their muscles in recent years and the highly controversial nature of the Conservative manifesto in the view of some peers, I think this is unlikely.
There’s not really a lot the Prime Minister can do about it either. Some commentators have argued that the Conservatives should just appoint more peers, but appointing the 150 plus peers just to achieve a majority would be impractical and heavily criticised. Another option is to use the Parliament Act to force legislation through the Lords, but it has only been successfully used four times since 1949, and means just over a year’s delay before legislation is enacted, so it is hardly very practical except for the most important bills. The Conservatives could simply work with the Lords as it is, doing deals on a vote by vote basis but that could see large parts of the manifesto delayed or compromised. No doubt at some point the 100 year old spectre of House of Lords reform will crop up yet again, despite the Prime Minister saying that it was not a priority. Even then it’s unlikely he could get Conservative MPs fully on board.
I said on the morning of the election that the next five years will be critical for the Conservative party. For the first time since 1992, we have been elected as a majority Government and have the opportunity to prove to the electorate that we can govern fairly and responsibly alone. Our opposition in England is divided, with Labour focussed on finding a new Leader, the Lib Dems decimated and demoralised and UKIP experiencing a backbench rebellion despite only having one MP. So Conservative MPs must above all remain united, working together to implement English Votes for English Laws and the equalisation of constituency boundaries, which will have a dramatic impact on the chances of re-election in 2020. The alternative, a descent into bickering and infighting, would be a disaster from which the electorate would not forgive us.