We don’t say this very often, but even we find most votes in the House of Commons pretty dull (except of course in the way that their dullness is itself interesting…). Here, though, are ten of the more interesting Commons votes since 2010, ten that we think tell the story of the Coalition and its relationship with the House of Commons.
1. Student fees (9 December 2010, either division 150 or 151, since both are almost identical). Not the first rebellion, nor even the first large-ish rebellion, but the first really tricky vote. The Coalition Agreement explicitly allowed the Lib Dems to abstain on student fees (as it also did over nuclear power), but the Lib Dem leadership found themselves confronted with a large number of their MPs who were determined to vote against – not least because they had pledged to do so before the election. The parliamentary arithmetic was stark: if most Lib Dems abstained, but a good number voted against, the vote could be lost, an event felt to be untenable that early in the coalition. And so the party split three ways: the Lib Dem frontbench voted for, minus a handful who resigned; 21 Lib Dems voted no; another five abstained. This remains the largest Lib Dem rebellion of the Parliament; indeed, it’s the largest Lib Dem rebellion since the party was formed.
2. Prisoners voting (10 February 2011, division 199). The establishment of the Backbench Business Committee after 2010 caused headaches for the whips. They began approaching backbench business as if it was ‘normal’ business: as resolutions in the House of Commons they should not endorse something contrary to the position of the Government. But the nature of the issues the Backbench Business Committee showed itself willing to discuss soon put this to the test. In February 2011, facing almost certain defeat over a Backbench Business Committee motion on voting for prisoners, the Government decided to absent itself from the vote, ministers abstaining en masse, and allowing a free vote for backbenchers and PPSs. Some 165 Conservative MPs voted for the motion, which was passed 234 to 22. This is a tactic governments have used in the past, if only rarely, but as the Parliament went on, it became one the Coalition has increasingly employed with backbench business. Having initially treated votes on backbench business as if they had to win, they soon resorted to shrugging their shoulders.
3. Europe (24 October 2011, division 372). Another piece of backbench business, but this time one the government decided to fight. With Labour support, the Coalition comfortably saw off a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, 483 to 111. But 81 Conservative MPs (and one Lib Dem) defied a three-line whip to vote for the motion, with others abstaining. It was (at that point) not quite the largest Conservative rebellion ever, but it was one of the largest. And it was a sign of things to come.
4. House of Lords reform (10 July 2012, division 47). In the largest rebellion by Government MPs on the Second Reading of any Bill in the post-war period (and the largest Commons rebellion to have hit the Coalition), some 91 Conservative MPs voted against the Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill. With Labour support, the Bill’s Second Reading was secured relatively easily, 462 votes to 124. But Labour support did not extend to the Bill’s programme motion, where the government whips faced a similar-sized rebellion. So, in the face of almost certain defeat, the government withdrew the programme motion rather than see it voted down. Trying to legislate on Lords reform without control of the timetable would have been next-to-impossible – as Harold Wilson had discovered in the 1960s – and so shortly afterwards the Bill was abandoned. It was not technically a government defeat, but no one was in any doubt what would have happened had the vote gone ahead.
5. Europe (again) (31 October 2012, division 91). The government’s first Commons defeat happened in December 2011 on a motion on the economy, with an old-fashioned parliamentary ambush, Labour MPs hiding until enough Conservatives had gone home. Such defeats may be embarrassing for the government, but they don’t represent a systemic problem with the delivery of legislation. Much more serious are defeats caused by their own MPs voting against it. The first of those came in October 2012 when 53 Conservative MPs supported an amendment calling for a reduction in the EU Budget, the government losing 307 to 294. David Cameron thus became the latest member of the list of Prime Ministers defeated in the House of Commons as a result of their own MPs rebelling, a line which dates back unbroken to Edward Heath.
6. Boundary changes (29 January 2013, division 146). In response to the failure of Lords reform, the Lib Dems withdrew support for the government’s proposed constituency boundary changes, and a vote to over-turn a crucial Lords amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill failed by 334 to 292, with the Liberal Democrats whipped to vote against. This vote saw government MPs whipped, in different directions, and with the Lib Dems voting in direct contravention of the Coalition Agreement. It was not the first time the two Coalition parties had had different whipping arrangements – the Coalition Agreement specifically allowed for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on votes over both tuition fees (as discussed above) and nuclear power, and there had been some dramatic intra-coalition splits on some free votes – but this was the first time they were whipped in opposite directions, and (moreover) in contravention of the Coalition Agreement. Such events would kill most European coalitions; in a very British way, we just muddled on, regardless.
7. Same sex marriage (5 February 2013, division 151). The Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – the Bill to introduce civil marriage for same sex couples – was a free vote for all the three main parties, but it only produced significant divisions on the Conservative side. The party split down the middle (127 Conservative MPs voting for, 137 voting against), with the Prime Minister in with a minority of his party. With large majorities of Labour and Lib Dem MPs voting for, the vote was passed by 400 to 175. Deep splits on free votes aren’t that unusual – one of the reasons some issues are made free votes is that they have historically divided the parties – and it wasn’t even unique to find party leaders voting with a minority of their MPs. As Prime Minister, Tony Blair had found himself in a similar situation (indeed, numerically even worse) over fox hunting. What was more unusual was the venom that accompanied these splits among Conservative MPs, given that the issue was being decided by a free vote and no one was being whipped to take up a position they oppose. Free votes normally take the poison out of arguments like this; they didn’t in this case. The Conservative MPs who voted for same-sex marriage were disproportionately female, younger, and from the new 2010 intake. The problem for David Cameron is that two of these groups of disproportionate support are relatively small whilst amongst the numerically large 2010 intake, support may be stronger than amongst the older lags but it was hardly overwhelming. At every one of the last three elections there have been claims about how the new intake of Conservative MPs would be more socially liberal, and shift the balance of power in the party. The reality has always been more mixed.
8. Press regulation (18 March 2013, division 192). Another example where the Coalition parties threatened to split apart on a vote. Following the publication of the Leveson Report, the Liberal Democrats made clear that they were willing to vote with Labour over the issue, and in opposition to the Conservatives, and so another government ‘defeat’ looked certain (aided in this case by a number of would-be Conservative backbench rebels). Instead, the Prime Minister gave ground, accepting Lib Dem demands, and the two parties voted together, along with Labour. As with Lords reform, there was no formal defeat here – on paper, the government won by 530 to 13 –but there was little doubt what would have happened had the government tried to tough out a vote. The Liberal Democrats then did something similar over a Labour Opposition Day debate on teachers’ training requirements in October 2013, abstaining en masse rather than voting with the Conservatives. That makes three votes so far where the Liberal Democrats have voted against the Conservatives, threatened to do so, or abstained.
9. Europe (yet again) (15 May 2013, division 3). Faced with yet another rebellion over a referendum on EU membership – this time an amendment to the motion on the Queen’s Speech – the Conservatives promised support for a private members’ bill on the subject (although not, as a result of Lib Dem opposition, any time). Despite this, the rebels pushed ahead with their amendment, and faced with an enormous rebellion, the Conservatives allowed a partial free vote on the issue: Ministers would abstain, backbenchers could do what they liked. More than 110 Conservative MPs voted for an amendment ‘regretting’ the absence of a referendum bill from the Queen’s speech. The amendment was defeated, as a result of Labour and Lib Dem votes, by 130 to 277, yet another vote where the Coalition parties ended up in different lobbies. Technically, this wasn’t a ‘rebellion’, because it was a free vote. But why was it made a free vote? Because the government knew they faced an enormous rebellion. But the most striking feature was that this was on the Queen’s Speech. Rebellions on motions on the Queen’s Speech are extremely rare. Even more rare – we cannot find a precedent – are occasions where the government (or at least the largest party of the government) abstain over the Queen’s Speech. The Prime Minister declared himself ‘relaxed’ about the outcome.
10. Syria (29 August 2013, division 70). Having recalled Parliament to debate the situation in Syria, the government whips discovered deep unhappiness amongst a large number of its MPs over the possibility of military action. The Government therefore retreated, promising that no military action would take place without a further vote – which left it in the curious position of having recalled Parliament to have a vote that wouldn’t achieve anything. Even this was not sufficient for some Conservative opponents of military action, who still voted against the government, producing yet another government defeat. One crucial difference between the vote on Iraq in 2003 and Syria ten years later – indeed, between Syria and every other vote on military action since Suez in 1956 – is that those votes all saw the Labour frontbench support the government, whereas over Syria Labour voted against the government, on both their amendment (which was easily defeated by 332 votes to 220) and the government’s motion (more narrowly defeated by 272 votes to 285). Seeing a government defeated over military action provoked a curious debate about when the last time this had happened. The truth is it doesn’t really matter: the fact that the only comparable votes involve Lord Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen and even Lord North is a sign of how far back in time you have to search to find anything comparable.