Listening to the debate yesterday afternoon reminded us of the lone parent benefit rebellion in December 1997. The first significant revolt of the Blair government, there was then the same sense of loss of innocence, of some MPs speaking and voting for things they didn’t entirely believe in, and of the grim realities of government intruding. In its overall size, the comparison is about right. Some 47 MPs rebelled in 1997, out of a government parliamentary party of 417, or 11%. Student fees saw 27 coalition MPs defy the whip, out of 362, or 8%.
But within one of the coalition’s two wobbly wings this revolts was much more significant. Not only was it the largest Liberal Democrat rebellion so far this Parliament, involving some 21 Lib Dem MPs (more than double what had been the largest rebellion since the party went into government), it was the largest in the entire history of the Liberal Democrats, since their formation back in 1988-89, surpassing the 15 who voted against a levy on the mining of limestone in 2002.
In absolute terms, 21 MPs does not sound particularly impressive. But because the overall size of the parliamentary party is small, to get (crude) comparison figures, you need to multiple any Lib Dem rebellion by 7: which puts the student fees revolt on a par with a revolt by 147 government MPs in a single party government. As a proportion of the Liberal Democrats, 21 MPs is a rebellion by 37% of their MPs. That is proportionately higher even than the 2003 Labour revolt against Iraq, and gives an indication of the scale of last night’s rebellion.
Things look even worse for the Lib Dems if you compare the behaviour of the Lib Dem front and backbenches. Twenty Lib Dem members of the Coalition Government voted in favour, with Chris Huhne unable to attend due to a ministerial engagement abroad. But of the backbenchers, 19 voted against the measure last night, along with two others who stood down from the Government as PPSs in order to be able to cast dissenting votes. Only eight Lib Dem backbenchers (one of whom was ex-minister David Laws) voted for the measure, while a further seven backbenchers either abstained (including Deputy Leader Simon Hughes) or failed to attend.
The votes last night brought the total number of Coalition MPs to have broken ranks thus far to 101: 73 Conservatives and 28 Liberal Democrat MPs. On the Liberal Democrat side, the fees votes saw six Liberal Democrat MPs defy the whip for the first time this Parliament. They were: former Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell; Mike Crockart (who stood down as PPS to Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore); Tim Farron, the party’s president; the new Redcar MP Ian Swales; Jenny Willott (who also resigned as a PPS to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne); and the new MP for Norwich South, Simon Wright. Lib Dem MPs have now rebelled on exactly one quarter of all divisions so far this Parliament.
On the Conservative side, all six rebels had form with the whips; the surprise was that they all stuck their necks out by voting against, rather than abstaining, which made the vote a shade closer than one might have expected.
Conservative MPs have now rebelled on 36% of votes this Parliament. And taken as a whole, the rate of rebellion by Coalition MPs stands at the staggeringly high level of a rebellion in 51% of divisions.
As we’ve said before, first sessions are usually the calm before the storm. If this is the calm, then the storm’s going to be very tasty.