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A very small minority

At the end of yesterday’s backbench business debate, John Baron, who had put down a motion opposing the use of force against Iran, confessed that he knew he would prove to be ‘in a very small minority’. So it proved. When the House divided, Baron was joined by just one other Conservative, Steve Baker, as well three Labour MPs – Paul Flynn, John McDonnell and Dennis Skinner – along with two Plaid and one SDLP MPs a total of just eight MPs, and that’s including tellers.

In a thinly attended House and on a one-line whip, 285 MPs supported an amendment put down by the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, supporting Coalition policy and calling on ‘all options for addressing the issue [to] remain on the table’, including the use of force.

In this, there’s not much surprise. Europe aside, foreign policy issues have only caused tiny levels of dissent in the three main political parties since 2010 (and, on the Conservative side of the House before that too). In September 2010, just three Coalition MPs (one of whom was John Baron) along with 11 Labour MPs opposed the continued deployment of British troops in Afghanistan. In March 2011, Baron was the only Conservative MP to join 11 Labour MPs in opposing British military action in Libya.

For us, though, the most interesting aspect of the debate was that Speaker Bercow accepted an amendment to a Backbench Business Committee motion. He’s done this before, but he rules out Government MPs putting down amendments during backbench time. Sir Malcolm is no Government stooge, however, and so Bercow readily accepted his amendment.

Parliament’s power surge

There’s an interesting piece in the Spectator by James Forsyth on the reassertion of parliament: an institution in decline has, since the election, begun to reassert itself, as a result of the ‘creative destruction’ caused by the expenses scandal and the massive turnover of MPs. The evidence of this revival – ‘what one might term a new golden age’ – is the flexing of muscles by select committee, specifically over phone hacking, and the backbench motions on the EU and prisoners voting. He also quotes some data on the very high rate of rebellion by Conservative MPs (wonder where they came from?).

We’re sceptical about almost all golden ages, especially when it comes to Parliament. But there’s no doubt that Parliament is enjoying a bit of a resurgence, though we’d quibble over the causes and over the time period. For one thing, this didn’t start in 2010. The Lords has been without a majority since reform in 1999, and was a growing source of frustration to Labour ministers up until 2010. Ditto the assertiveness of backbenchers and the growing importance of select committees. Easiest way to remember this: this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

Also, left out of the Forsyth account entirely is the effect of Speaker Bercow. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea (especially not that of Spectator readers?), but his effect on the Commons has been positive and profound. Two of the three cases that Forsyth uses as examples of backbench influence – the debate on prisoners having the vote and the EU referendum vote – are a result of the new procedures initiated before the last election (again, therefore, not caused by it) and the establishment of a backbench business committee. But they achieved as much as they did partly as a result of the Speaker not allowing the government to move amendments to motions from the backbench business committee. Had he allowed that, it would have neutered them almost completely. Ditto for his allowing of repeated Urgent Questions, which has done much to refocus attention onto the chamber.

And last, one small point. It might well be true to say that Ed Miliband thought that by putting down a motion over Stephen Hester’s bonus he would split the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives and thus win a vote. But if true, it is a sign that Mr Miliband cannot add up. Because whilst no one party has a majority large enough to secure a majority, the Coalition collectively has a majority large enough to withstand a rebellion by every single one of the Lib Dem backbench MPs. That motion achieved what it did because of the embarrassment value of debating the issue in the Commons, not because there was any chance of a Commons defeat.

Concessions win the day

Last Wednesday (1 February), Liberal Democrat MPs were involved in ten separate backbench rebellions: four minor ones on mayoral referendums, and six more significant ones on the Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.

Speculation was rife in the run-up to the voting that Nick Clegg would suffer a bloody nose at the hands of discontented Lib Dems. However, both whips and ministers got to work, offering loads of concessions, chipping away at the rebellions: those in receipt of Employment Support Allowances (but not Disability Living Allowance) would be exempt from the new £26,000 benefit cap; the grace period was extended to nine months for claimants who had been in work for the previous twelve months, eating up half a Labour amendment in one go; and £130m in transitional support was put on the table for the next two years to smooth in the changes.

In addition, there was what looked to us like evidence of divide-and-rule tactics, whips acquiescing on some rebellions in return for MPs’ support on other aspects of the bill. The end result was that the expected large Lib Dem rebellions fizzled out somewhat. Indeed, only where the Government chose not to make concessions did a reasonably large rebellion occur, 12 Lib Dems objecting to the new under-occupancy penalty on social housing tenants with no more than one spare bedroom. But that aside, the other five rebellions saw 8, 6, 4, 1, and 4 Lib Dem MPs vote against their whip.

And on the key amendment that had caused all the fuss in the Lords – blocking cuts to benefits received by children on the lower rate of Disability Living Allowance – not a single Liberal Democrat backbencher defied the Government.

The real significance of Wednesday’s rebellions is that we’ve now had over 100 Lib rebellions so far this Parliament (104 to be exact), which means that just over one quarter of divisions (26%) have seen Lib Dem MPs break ranks. Of these 104 rebellions, around six in ten (61%) have been on social and economic issues associated with the need to cut public expenditure. It’s a clear example of the divide within the coalition’s backbenchers: with a handful of exceptions, most Conservative MPs have been perfectly happy to see these cuts go ahead.

Eric Forth’s spirit lives on

Since the advent of automatic programming – timetabling, in other words – of most Government bills, the opportunity for miscreant backbench MPs to engage in old-fashioned filibustering has become much less frequent. But it’s not gone away entirely.

Most of the members of the self-styled awkward squad of the 1997 Parliament have now left the Commons, but Christopher Chope remains and he has been joined by a new generation, some of whom explicitly claim the late Eric Forth, the most awkward of the awkward, as their inspiration. Together they did their best to hold up the passage of the Daylight Saving Bill on Friday (a Private Members’ Bill) and the London Local Authorities Bill (a piece of private legislation) on Wednesday, neither of which are subject to the normal rules of programming.

Last Friday, for example, Chope spoke for an hour and-a-quarter during the Report stage of the Daylight Saving Bill, before a closure motion (requiring 100 MPs to be present to ensure that the relevant amendment is voted upon) stopped him in his tracks. Not to be outdone, Jacob Rees-Mogg picked up the baton, with a speech that included remarks such as: ‘China is very big. It must be acknowledged that the United States is also quite big, though not as big as China.’ At one point, he even quoted the book of Joshua:

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed until the people avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hastened not to go down about a whole day.

Even Daylight Saving doesn’t keep the sun up for a whole day.

Before Rees-Mogg could go much further, he too was cut short by a closure motion, but thanks to the Awkward Squad’s antics, the Bill ran out of time.

Then, on Wednesday, they reassembled. Philip Davies spoke for 94 minutes during the Report stage of the London Local Authorities Bill, this time on the subject of litter control notices. Thanks to the verbal dexterity of Davies, the debate meandered into the use of turnstiles in public toilets. A closure motion again stopped him, but ‘flushed with success’ (Anne Main’s dreadful pun, not ours), Jacob Rees-Mogg quotations from the Magna Carta succeeded in talking out the time allocated to the Bill.

They are scheduled to resume their filibustering on the London Local Authorities Bill on Tuesday. Eric Forth would be proud of them, one and all.

It’s just a number, like any other number

As of 8 November, we now make it 69 of the new Tory intake who have rebelled. That’s some 47% of the 2010 intake, or 54% of those left of the backbenches once you strip out those newbies who are now PPSs.

They also make up the majority of the Conservative rebels. We have had 116 Conservative rebels so far, so 59% (very nearly six in ten) are drawn from the ranks of those who came in in May 2010.

How to avoid a Euro revolt

Here’s a trick we don’t think we’ve seen before. Another big Conservative backbench rebellion on increasing the EU Budget was avoided yesterday when the Government simply disagreed with the relevant EU Documents.

European ‘take note’ motions can be a pain – it was on a take note motion that John Major suffered one of his Commons defeats – but the Government appear to have decided that they can ‘take note’ of the motion whilst also disagreeing with it. The text of yesterday’s motion describes the Commision’s spending plans as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unrealistic’, as well as ‘too large and incompatible with the tough decisions being taken in the UK’, and says the proposed changes to fund the EU budget are ‘completely unacceptable and an unwelcome distraction’. And then takes note of them!

The full text:

“Resolved,
That this House takes note of European Union Documents Nos. 12478/11 and Addenda 1 and 2, 12474/11, 12480/11, 12483/11, 12475/11 and Addenda 1 to 3, and 12484/11, relating to the Commission’s proposal on the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), 2014-20; agrees with the Government, that at a time of ongoing economic fragility in Europe and tight constraints on domestic public spending, the Commission’s proposal for very substantial spending increases compared with current spend is unacceptable, unrealistic, too large and incompatible with the tough decisions being taken in the UK and in countries across Europe to bring deficits under control and stimulate economic growth, that the next MFF must see significant improvements in the financial management of EU resources by the Commission and by Member States and in the value for money of spend and that the proposed changes to the UK abatement and new taxes to fund the EU budget are completely unacceptable and an unwelcome distraction from the pressing issues that the EU needs to address; and supports the Government’s ongoing efforts to reduce the Commission’s proposed budget”.

Maybe this has been done before, but we can’t remember it. Anyway, it’s a neat trick to swerve what otherwise could have been a messy vote.

Past behaviour, current behaviour

We’ve published thoughts on last night’s vote at the Nottingham University Ballots and Bullets blog – along with an analysis of the Conservative rebels. We were struck there by the relationship between past rebelliousness over Europe and behavior last night.

That relationship held just as strongly on the Labour side. Sixteen of the 19 Labour rebels had previous form on Europe during this Parliament. Indeed, the top 13 Labour EU rebels so far this Parliament all defied the party whip by supporting the referendum: Skinner, Dennis (11 European rebellions before Monday); Hopkins, Kelvin (8); Hoey, Kate (7); Corbyn, Jeremy (6);Davidson, Ian (6); Campbell, Ronnie (5); McDonnell, John (5) Cryer, John (5); Field, Frank (3); Mitchell, Austin (3); Stringer, Graham (3); Stuart, Gisela (3); Wood, Mike (3).

Compare that to the 19 least rebellious on the issue, from whom just three rebelled over the referendum: Godsiff, Roger (1); Cooper, Rosie (1); McCabe, Steve (1).

The three others not on that list are Jon Cruddas (pro-European, but someone who supported a referendum on Europe in March 2008), Natascha Engel (the new chair of the Backbench Business Committee, on whose watch last night’s vote was taken) and Andrew Smith, a former member of Gordon Brown’s notoriously sceptical Treasury team in the 1990s.

So in general – as we’ve noted before – past behaviour explains current behaviour. If you’ve ever wanted to know why whips try so hard to stop people rebelling for the first time, and getting into the habit, this is why…

Monday’s Magic Number

Calling journalists! Want to know what would constitute the largest Conservative rebellion over Europe? The answer is here.

Biggest Conservative rebellion, so far

Edward Leigh’s amendment to a Government programme motion for the Protection of Freedoms Bill on 10 October triggered the largest Conservative rebellion of the Parliament thus far. It saw 41 Conservative MPs (together with two Liberal Democrat and eight Labour MPs) support his move to allow time to debate the abolition of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which would have removed all references to offences based on insulting words or behaviour. (One Labour MP – Paul Flynn – voted no as the Labour frontbench abstained).

As well as the largest rebellion so far this Parliament, it also significantly expanded the pool of Conservative rebels to 99. The new rebels were Peter Aldous, Alun Cairns, Tracey Crouch, Ben Gummer, Simon Hart, Greg Knight, Jeremy Lefroy, Laura Sandys, Nicholas Soames, Robert Walter and James Wharton. All except Knight, Soames and Walter come from the new intake.

Eight new MPs breaking their duck just before Monday’s vote on a referendum on EU membership could not have come at a worse time for the whips; having rebelled now, rebellion then won’t be such a big deal. There is more analysis of Monday’s vote at Nottingham University’s Ballots and Bullets blog.

Coalition hits 150 rebellions

The last two days have seen three Liberal Democrat rebellions on the Coalition’s troubled Health and Social Care Bill, involving a total of eleven Lib Dem MPs. Yesterday, ten Lib Dem MPs backed a Labour amendment that would have ensured that the Secretary of State would be responsible for the provision of health services. The amendment was defeated by 304 votes to 255, but the rebellion had the effect of reducing the Coalition’s majority to 49.
Four Liberal Democrat MPs went on to oppose the Third Reading of the Bill, while Stephen Gilbert cast a deliberate abstention by voting in both lobbies. The previous day three Lib Dem MPs backed a Labour amendment in the name of Emily Thornberry that would have deleted Clause 168 of the Bill, which abolishes the cap on the number of private patients who can be treated in foundation trust hospitals. The Coalition’s considerable concessions in the last few months have helped to buy off many but by no means all the Lib Dem rebels.
These latest examples of Liberal Democrat dissent have helped bring up another Coalition milestone: the number of Coalition Commons rebellions so far this Parliament now stands at 150, a rebellion rate of a rebellion in 44% of votes. Sixty-six of these rebellions have involved Liberal Democrat MPs, a rate of a rebellion in 19% of votes.