We should all be grateful to the Electoral Reform Society, which has published a report into last spring’s general election. We mean no disrespect if we add that the reason has nothing to do with the release’s purpose, which is to build support for replacing first past the post with proportional representation. Voters had their say on dropping FPTP in a referendum little more than five years ago, and rejected the proposal by over two to one. That the alternative on offer was not a proportional system makes no difference to political reality: electoral reform is off the table, at least for the foreseeable future. One has to admire the society for keeping going.
The merit of its study, rather, is that it should encourage us to think a bit more about Commons majorities in these times. Obviously, it is better for a Prime Minister to have one than not. The mere possession of a majority, however slim, may make a difference to a government’s standing with other countries and with the markets. It will also have an effect in Parliament itself – in, say, the allocation of places and chairmanships to Select Committees. And if the Lords holds up government legislation, Ministers will be able to claim that they have a mandate for it, even if that majority is rice paper-thin.
The society reports that Theresa May would have gained one had the Conservatives won 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies. But such a threadbare majority would have made next to no difference to her command of the Commons. Philip Cowley has described the 2010-2015 Parliament as “the most rebellious in the post-war era”. An election majority in that last year brought David Cameron little respite on key issues: backbench or Lords opposition or both forced him to drop reforms on Sunday trading, school academisation, disability benefits, tax credits (and much else).
That last revolt forced George Osborne to drop plans outlined in a budget. The penultimate one cost the Government Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary. David Cameron’s replacement by Theresa May made matters little easier. Philip Hammond U-turned on his proposed budget changes to NICs within a week. These rebellions were part of a pattern. Some look back to the 1960s and 1970s as a great era of Parliament – packed with such Commons stars such as Denis Healey, Iain Macleod, Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Tony Crosland and Quintin Hogg.
But whether so or not, the lower house was less revolt-prone then than in recent times, as Cowley points out. After 2015, a rebellion by fewer than ten backbenchers could sink a measure, assuming that the Opposition all turned up for a vote. That total has now shrunk. May therefore needed to do more than increase Cameron’s majority to make last spring’s election a Conservative success. Views of by how much will vary. A formal majority of 30 would probably have ensured that she could get most of her business through. But it would have been a disappointment to the Party after those early campaign polls and landslide expectations.
A Prime Minister with a bare majority now faces an additional difficulty. The Coalition Agreement committed David Cameron’s Government to create “a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”. One of the consequences of the Lords having mirrored the Commons in this way (the Liberal Democrats are now grossly over-represented by this measure) is that the latter gives less political consent to the former. Disraeli once said that “one is enough”. If this was ever true in the Commons, it is so no longer, at least as far as majorities are concerned.