Psychologically disastrous

Today’s Times talks about the how the whips kept the rebellion below ‘the psychologically disastrous level of 100’. It’s true that no individual Trident revolt broke the 100 barrier – the largest was 95 – but the churning between each vote meant that the total number of Labour MPs who voted against their whip in last night’s vote was 102. As a percentage of the PLP – smaller now than it was in 2003 – this is extremely close to the scale of the Iraq revolt.

This was that rare thing, a revolt that appears to have hardened rather than weakened, as the vote approached. And we don’t mind admitting that its size took us slightly by surprise. Although we expected a big rebellion, we were a bit sceptical that it would break the record for the largest defence rebellion ever by Labour backbenchers in government – the 79 who defied Jim Callaghan over defence expenditure in 1977. Yet that record went crashing down. It was merely the latest record to fall. Since 1997, we’ve also seen the largest foreign policy rebellion in Labour’s history (Iraq), the largest education rebellion (top-up fees), and the largest health policy rebellion (foundation hospitals). Where’s Roy Castle when you need him?

Proper briefing paper still to follow, but it’s worth pointing out now that the 102 rebels included just six MPs voting against their whip for the first time. The other 96 all had form – even if many of them were hardly persistent offenders. Although this could be presented as positive for the government – not many new MPs joining the ranks of the trouble-makers (although we suspect Charles Clarke could cause rather a lot of trouble in the coming years) – we see it more as evidence of how widespread rebellion has become, how common it is now to be a backbench rebel.